The three main writers on the Dark Ages are Gildas (6th Cent), Bede (672/3 – 26 May 735) and "Nennius" (c830). Of these, most is known about Bede. Both Bede and Nennius use Gildas as a source, but both clearly have other sources, some of which may be lost. All three have been used as a basis for "Arthurian" legends, although neither Gildas nor Bede name an "Arthur" as such. Versions of the "Life of Saint Gildas" need to be treated with considerable caution, as these works were written in the ninth (possibly the eleventh) and twelfth centuries and are regarded by many scholars as unhistorical. The same caution needs to be applied to much of what can be found online about Gildas, which often contains contradictions and/or speculations.
Gildas — also known as Gildas the Wise or St. Gildas — was a 6th-century British monk best known for his scathing religious polemic "De Excidio et Conquestu Britanniae" (On the Ruin and Conquest of Britain), which recounts the history of the Britons before and during the coming of the Saxons: partly in the form of a prolonged "rant".
He is said to be one of the best-documented figures of the Christian church in the British Isles during the sub-Roman period, and was supposedly renowned for his Biblical knowledge and literary style. In fact, Gildas first rose to prominence in the writings of the Venerable Bede. Despite all this later comment very little is known about where he wrote, or when, or who he actually was. The Dictionary of Welsh Biography gives names for his parents which are almost certainly a later fiction. Later tales suggest that he was the son of a Pictish king, but no contemporary sources support that hypothesis and his knowledge of Hadrian's Wall is full of errors. In his later life, some have speculated that Gildas emigrated to Brittany where he founded a monastery known as St. Gildas de Rhuys. However it is now generally believed that the Gildas of Brittany is a different person. There is no evidence that the Welsh Gildas should properly be considered as a saint, although he is referred to as such in the signage at the Amphitheatre in Chester.
It is thought from his Latin style that Gildas wrote "De Excidio" after 480 and before 550 with the closest estimate being 510-530. His knowledge of the north is sketchy and his damning accusations of the Welsh kings have been taken to indicate that since Gildas was able to accuse these men, he must certainly have lived a long way away from the territory controlled by them. Others have suggested a location outside of these territories, but close enough to receive information at short notice. Contrary to suggestions of Wales, Chester or Northamptonshire (which all suffer from the objections to a northern location), one writer suggested a southern location, close enough to Dumnonia to write the latest gossip, others favor a south-western location based on Gildas apparent knowledge of geographical details. His coasts, which he describes as having ‘curving bays’ and ‘large promontories which jut out’, are much better reflected by the coasts of Kent, Sussex and Dorset than those of Yorkshire or Cumbria. The cliff-edge fortifications are of a very limited distribution, stretching from East Devon to South-east Wales. He tells of agriculture on wide plains and ‘stretched hills’, which points more to the down-land of the southern chalk hills, than to the barren north. Even the snow-white pebbles in the streambeds suggest a chalk or limestone geology.
The probably highly innacurate life of Gildas written by Caradoc of Llancarfan in the middle of the 12th century states that Gildas had 23 brothers who were always always rising up against their rightful king, and his eldest brother, Hueil, would submit to no rightful high king, not even the mythical Arthur. Gildas never mentions Arthur although he does mention the Battle of Mount Badon, in which Arthur supposedly defeated the Saxons. 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. Local tradition places Hueil's death in Ruthin (and his home in Edeirnion, near Corwen, North Wales). The life and the story of Hueil are almost certainly fabrications. In the traditional version Gildas destroys records relating to "Arthur" after the death of his brother which provides a convenient explanation as to why these records do not exist.
The signage at the amphitheatre has Gildas writing at the monastery at Bangor-on-Dee. This monastery is believed to have been founded in about AD 560 by Saint Dunod (or Dunawd) and was an important religious centre in the 6th century. The monastery was destroyed in about 613/616 by the Anglo-Saxon king Æthelfrith of Northumbria after he defeated the Welsh armies at the Battle of Chester. Clearly, if Gildas' "De Excidio" is dated to before 550 (or in the narrower range 510-530) he cannot have been writing at the Bangor-on-Dee monastery. Thus, any actual association between Gildas and Chester, as implied on the Amphitheatre, signage appears to be without any historic foundation.
There is some evidence to suggesst that Gildas wrote at Cor Tewdws or Bangor Tewdws (Meaning "college" or "chief university" of Theodosius) a Celtic monastery and college in what is now Llantwit Major, Glamorgan. This establishment is believed to have been founded c. 395. The original college was said to have been established by (or in honour of) the Roman Emperor Theodosius I, and was named after him. In 380, Theodosius declared Nicene Christianity the only legitimate Imperial religion, ending support for traditional polytheistic religions and customs. The college was reputedly burnt down in 446, with different sources attributing the destruction to Irish pirates and Saxon war bands. After the sack of the College of Theodosius, the site lay barren for 62 years, until it was re-established by St. Illtud c. 508. According to the Book of Llandaff, St. Dubricius commissioned Illtud to re-establish the college, and the place came to be known as Llanilltud Fawr. It has been suggested that followers of St. Illtud at Cor Tewdws included St. David of Wales, Samson of Dol, St. Paul Aurelian, Paulinus and Gildas. Unfortunately much of the discussion has been led astray by dubious sources, especially those compiled by the discredited Iolo Morganwg (Edward Williams, 1747-1826), who is believed to have forged much of his source material.
Gildas' might seem like a ranting doom-monger, but his impact on church teaching was felt six-hundred years after his time when Wulfstan, archbishop of York, delivered a homily (in 1014) this time admonishing the English for their sins. Wulfstan is noted for his "fire and brimstone" approach to the terrors of Hell which had long been a characteristic feature of christianity:
- "Wa þam þonne þe ær geearnode helle wite. Ðær is ece bryne grimme gemencged, & ðær is ece gryre; þær is granung & wanung & aa singal heof; þær is ealra yrmða gehwylc & ealra deofla geþring. Wa þam þe þær sceal wunian on wite. Betere him wære þæt he man nære æfre geworden þonne he gewurde..." - Woe then to him who has earned for himself the torments of Hell. There there is everlasting fire roiling painfully, and there there is everlasting filth. There there is groaning and moaning and always constant wailing. There there is every kind of misery, and the press of every kind of devil. Woe to him who dwells in torment: better it were for him that he were never born, than that he become thus...
There were renewed Scandinavian raids and, in 1013, King Æthelred had been forced to flee to Normandy. Wulfstan, just like Gildas, thought that the raids were a punishment from God. As Wulfstan writes in the Sermo Lupi ad Anglos ("The sermon of the wolf to the English" - Lupus, "the Wolf," is a thinly disguised literary alias):
- "Here there are manslayers and slayers of their kinsmen, and slayers of priests and persecutors of monasteries, and here there are perjurers and murderers, and here there are harlots and infanticides and many foul adulterous fornicators, and here there are wizards and sorceresses, and here there are plunderers and robbers and spoliators, and, in short, a countless number of all crimes and misdeeds."
With remarkable irony Wulfstan compares the plight of the English to that of the Celtic Britons, whom they had defeated half a millennium before.
- "There was a historian in the times of the Britons, called Gildas, who wrote about their misdeeds, how with their sins they angered God so excessively that finally he allowed the army of the English to conquer their land and to destroy the host of the Britons entirely. And that came about, according to what he said, through robbery by the powerful, and through the coveting of ill-gotten gains, through the lawlessness of the people and through unjust judgments, through the sloth of the bishops and the wicked cowardice of God's messengers, who mumbled with their jaws where they should have cried aloud; also through the foul wantonness of the people and through gluttony and manifold sins they destroyed their country and themselves they perished."
Gildas "Ruin" is in three parts. 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:
- "Concerning her obstinacy, subjection and rebellion, about her second subjection and harsh servitude; concerning religion, of persecution, the holy martyrs, many heresies, of tyrants, of two plundering races, concerning the defense and a further devastation, of a second vengeance and a third devastation, concerning hunger, of the letter to Agitius (usually identified with the patrician Flavius Aetius) and otherwise known as the "Groans of the Britons", of victory, of crimes, of enemies suddenly announced, a memorable plague, a council, an enemy more savage than the first, the subversion of cities, concerning those whose survived, and concerning the final victory of our country that has been granted to our time by the will of God."
The second part consists of a condemnation of five British kings, and as it is the only contemporary information about them, it is of particular interest to scholars of British history. Gildas swathes the condemnations in allegorical beasts from the Book of Daniel and the Book of Revelation, likening the kings to the beasts described there: a lion, a leopard, a bear, and a dragon.
The third part begins with the words, "Britain has priests, but they are fools; numerous ministers, but they are shameless; clerics, but they are wily plunderers." Gildas continues his jeremiad against the clergy of his age, but does not explicitly mention any names in this section, and so does not cast any light on the detailed history of the Christian church in this period.
Despite all his condemnation it appears that Gildas found his own time with invasions by the Anglo-Saxons largely paused and the Britains largely living in peace against outsiders. However Gildas has the Briton's squandering this period of peace with civil war, internal disputes, and general unrest. Moreover natrural disaster had happened: the extent to which Western Europe was afflicted by famines through an “Extreme Weather Event” of circa 535 AD is disputed, but in 535 the Byzantine historian Procopius recorded in his (AD 536) report on the wars with the Vandals,
- "..during this year a most dread portent took place. For the sun gave forth its light without brightness ... and it seemed exceedingly like the sun in eclipse, for the beams it shed were not clear..".
Gildas perhaps alludes to a similar dense cloud:
- "a certain thick mist and black night of their offences sit(s) upon the whole island"
It is possible that this weakening of the sun was due to a volcanic eruption. Various candidates have been put forward for the location of this volcano. Curiously, another eruption shortly before the time of Wulfstan (in around 946) possibly resulted in another episode of meteorological anomalies, although Viking raids (including an attack on Cheshire) only restarted a generation later in about 980.
It is also possible that Britain was struck by an outbreak of bubonic plague during the period. Procopius and other contemporaries record the plague as devastating Constantinople in 542 AD and then spreading both east and west. Gildas refers to the pestilence in Britain in the same era, though without dating the attack. The documents now known as Annales Cambriae and the Annals of Tigernach record “a great mortality”, believed to be the same plague as mentioned by Procopius, hitting Ireland and Wales at this time. Many historians put the date of Gildas around the time that one of the five kings mentioned by Gildas died of the "great mortality".
So Gildas is writing at a time when Chester was probably a British (Welsh) rather than a Saxon (English) city. The next major Saxon campaign against the Britons was to not occur until around 577. The actual date when the Saxons took permanent control of Chester is not entirely clear.
The sixth century saw the establishment of many religious institutions in Wales. While the Celtic Church and that which was to later develop in the rest of Britain had differences these are not now believed to have been as marked as once thought, but on the whole the Celtic church appears less centralised and more prone towards local monastic settlements. If the signage at the Amphitheatre is to be believed then it might be thought that there was a cult based on Welsh (Celtic) martyrs at Chester at an early time.
Gildas on Chester
Gildas does not mention Chester directly in his writings. He is the primary source (in fact the only source) for the existence of the Romano-British saints Aaron and Julius sometimes said to be associated with Chester. However it is possible that Gildas is writing about Caerleon when he says "City of the legions". Gildas is writing before the Battle of Chester (616) but his work is relevant to that battle due to its reference to the Welsh kings, whose descendants may have been involved in the battle. He is a significant source for events surrounding the transition from Roman to sub-Roman rule in Britain and the coming of the Saxons, which are relevant to Chester due to its importance as a Roman administrative and military center. However conclusions about historical events at Chester based on Gildas are all inferences.
- Gildas and Bede: a possible connection between the rulers condemned by Gildas and those who appear at Chester in Bede;
- Dark Ages;
A version of Gildas can be found below:
- Gildas: on Wikipedia - this appears to attempt to reconcile the two quite different accounts of Gildas which may actually relate to different persons and are probably both somewhat innacurate;