The Grail Code 
Looking for Arthur: St. Gildas the Wise

Kings Britain has, but tyrants; judges she has, but impious ones: often arresting and examining, but examining innocent men; protecting and defending, but defending criminals and bandits; with wives in droves, but whoring and committing adultery; always swearing oaths, but perjuring themselves; making vows, but lying almost at once; warriors, but waging civil and unjust wars… [De Excidio, 27.]

This is Britain according to St. Gildas, who wrote sometime in the middle of the 500s. He doesn’t think much of the civil government, does he? But Gildas thinks even less of the British church: many pages later, he overwhelms the British ecclesiastical establishment with a flood of rhetoric that deliberately echoes and intensifies what he said about the kings and judges:

Priests Britain has, but foolish ones; ministers in droves, but shameless ones; clerks, but crafty robbers; pastors so called, but wolves all ready to slaughter souls: certainly not looking out for the interests of the people, but seeking to fill their own bellies… [De Excidio, 66.]

Well, Britain must be in sad shape, then. How did things get so bad? Gildas answers that question by giving us a history of Britain up to his own time. It’s a good history, too, all filtered through Gildas’ burning indignation, which makes it lively reading.

But for the historian, Gildas has one infuriating habit. He doesn’t mention names.

I remarked earlier that Gildas doesn’t mention the name of Arthur. That silence would be very informative if Gildas were an ordinary historian, but he’s not. He’s writing a sermon to all the Britons, and the calamities that befell the nation are the fault of everyone. Later in the sermon, after he’s through with the history, he’ll have some choice words for a few specific contemporaries. But in the history itself, I count exactly three actors named in more than five hundred years of events. Two of those names belong to execrable villains.

There were some memorable characters in those centuries. Boadicea, for example. Gildas doesn’t name her; he speaks of “the cunning lioness” and assumes we’ll know who he’s talking about. (And we do, because the story of Boadicea’s rebellion is well known from other histories.)

Constantine the Great, who made Christianity the favored religion of the Empire, was in Britain when he was proclaimed emperor. Surely that would be one of the proudest moments in British history, but Gildas doesn’t mention his name. He does, however, mention Maximus, who, in his mad grab for the throne, took away most of the Roman soldiers who protected the island. That’s name number one.

After the Romans left Britain for good, Gildas tells us, the wicked tyrant Vortigern - name number two - brought in Saxon mercenaries to fight the marauding Picts. In The Grail Code we quote Gildas’ description of the result: a Saxon massacre that left the island devastated.

Name number three is Ambrosius Aurelianus, the only admirable Briton mentioned in all those centuries of history - “a modest man, who, by chance, alone survived of all the Roman race.” Ambrosius rallied the British, and saved them from complete obliteration. Gildas must have thought very highly of Ambrosius: his is the only name in all British history that Gildas mentions as admirable.

That’s the last name we get (at least until the body of the sermon, when Gildas singles out contemporary rulers for special vituperation). Gildas tells us what happened next: sometimes the British prevailed, sometimes the Saxons, “until the year of the siege of Mount Badon,” which by coincidence happened in the year Gildas was born. It was the last great battle; the Saxons were still kept in check when Gildas was writing.

Badon is a name we recognize: tradition tells us it was Arthur’s great victory. If we hadn’t read the rest of Gildas’ history, we might be surprised that he doesn’t name the great leader who won the battle of Mount Badon. But now we know that it’s not Gildas’ style to name names. With the single exception of Ambrosius Aurelianus, there are no heroes in British history as far as Gildas is concerned.

Though he doesn’t give us names, Gildas does give us a rough outline of what was for him recent British history:

1. The warring Britons were finally united against the Saxons.

2. The Saxons were defeated at the famous battle of Badon.

3. After that, there was peace and security for some time.

4. Then the British relapsed into civil war.

Now, compare this outline with the outline of Arthur’s life we came up with before. I admit that I have deliberately accented the resemblances, but I do think the resemblances are there.

If Gildas, the only British historian of Arthur’s time, had mentioned the name of Arthur, we would be certain that Arthur had existed. But what Gildas does give us is very much an Arthur-shaped hole. The Arthur of tradition is an extraordinarily good fit.

The other thing Gildas gives us is an interpretation of British history - and that’s really the more important thing from our point of view. All the disasters and calamities were God’s judgment on “his Israelites.” Gildas interprets history exactly the way the Old Testament historians interpreted the history of Israel and Judah.

This is the interpretation that would stick with the British through the centuries of the Dark Ages. Even in the most colorful medieval romances, we find that the world of Arthur works according to the rules set down by Gildas. Wickedness brings a curse on the land; only repentance can lift it.

But if Gildas won’t give us Arthur, where can we find him? In the next installment, we’ll look for the very earliest references to Arthur, and we’ll see whether they tell us anything about him.

16 Responses to “Looking for Arthur: St. Gildas the Wise”

  1. The Grail Code» Blog Archive » Introducing Arthur the tyrant Says:

    [...] The Britons were divided, and Arthur united them: all the traditions agree on that. If Britain was anything like the way Gildas painted it, then it’s most likely that the way Arthur united the Britons was by defeating the recalcitrant warlords in battle. In other words, Arthur was the winner in a civil war. [...]

  2. The Grail Code» Blog Archive » What we think we know about Arthur in history Says:

    [...] 1. Gildas leaves an Arthur-shaped hole in history. He doesn’t mention Arthur’s name, but Gildas is not in the habit of mentioning names. We do know from Gildas that the battle of Badon was historical, because Gildas mentions that he was born in the very year that great battle took place. [...]

  3. The Grail Code» Blog Archive » Battle of the Dragons Says:

    [...] This is the story of the boy Ambrosius, one of the strangest stories in a book filled with strange stories. But does this Ambrosius have anything to do with the Ambrosius in Gildas? And—more to the point, considering what we’ve been up to for the past few days—what does he have to do with Merlin? [...]

  4. The Grail Code» Blog Archive » Arthur in Green’s History Says:

    [...] Looking for Arthur: St. Gildas the Wise [...]

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  7. Andrew Storer Says:

    We do not know!

    Ecclesiastical tradition we can look at but history, except incidentally, is beyond Gildas.
    All we can say is he would not be likely to say things untrue within the lifetimes of his contemporaries.

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