There are in fact two lives of Gildas, the sixth century ecclesiast, saint and author of the De Excidio Britanniae, the "history of the kings of Britain". One was written by an anonymous monk from Rhuys Abbey in Britanny and the other, considered here, written by a Welsh monk known as Caradog of Llancarfan.
Caradog's Life, written sometime in the period 1120 to 1130, illustrates the sort of wide ranging career that early Christian saints were supposed to have had; Gildas was born in Strathclyde, studied in Gaul, returned to preach in Britain, went to Ireland, visited Rome spend two periods of his life living as a hermit before finally passing away and being interred at Glastonbury. (The Breton life of Gildas follows much the same pattern, except that naturally, Gildas ends his life and is buried at Rhuys Abbey in Britanny.)
These days greater interest is engendered by the reference to Gildas as the "contemporary of Arthur" and in the recounting in paragraphs eleven and twelve of the bare bones of the tale that has become known as the abduction of Gwenhwyfar which is related in greater detail in the Dialogue of Melwas and Gwenhwyfar and becomes the the central action of Chrétien de Troyes's Le Chevalier de la Charette.
Place names in the Life
Of the places named in the Life; 'Glastonia' is of course Glastonbury, 'Ronech and Echin' are the islands now known as Flatholm and Steepholm in the Bristol Channel and 'Pepidiauc' is Pebydiog, a cantref in the Welsh kingdom of Dyfed, and the location of city and religous centre of St Davids. The reference to the "summer country" is a literal rendering of the Welsh Gwlad yr Haf, by which the Welsh mean Somerset, the 'island of Minau' is the Isle of Man and 'Cornubia' and 'Dibneria' are the Latin names for Cornwall and Devon respectively.
The references to 'Scotia' and 'Scotland' are of course, entirely anachronistic as there was no Scotland during the lifetime of the sixth century Gildas; our twelfth century monk means "up north" and should be taken as referring to Strathclyde.
Incidentally, Caradog's explantion of the origins of the name Glastonbury as deriving from the old Welsh word 'gutrin' from the Latin 'vitrea' as in 'glass', is quite wrong, no matter how many times the explantion has been reproduced elsewhere.
It will be noted that Caradog signs himself as 'Caradog of Nancarban'.
Nancarban or Nant Carfan (the stream or the valley of Carfan) is simply the earliest form of the place name, which later became replaced by Llancarfan (the church of Carfan) possibly to avoid confusion with another Nant Carfan in Montgomeryshire i.e. Powys.
Caradog's Llancarfan/ Nancarban is in south Glamorganshire and was the location of a famous monastery founded by Saint Cadoc, possibly in the sixth century.
The Life of Gildas
Nau, the king of Scotia, was the noblest of the kings of the north. He had twenty-four sons, victorious warriors. One of these was named Gildas, whom his parents engaged in the study of literature. He was a boy of good natural disposition, devoted to study, and distinguished for his talents. Whatever he heard from his master he would repeat most diligently, and forgetfulness did not harm him. He eagerly and diligently studied among his own people in the seven arts until he reached the age of youth; when, on becoming a young man, he speedily left the country.
He crossed the Gallic Sea, and remained studying well in the cities of Gaul for seven years; and at the end of the seventh year he returned, with a huge mass of volumes, to greater Britain. Having heard the renown of the very illustrious stranger, great numbers of scholars from all parts flocked to him. They heard him explaining with the greatest acuteness the science of the seven rules of discipline, according to which men, from being disciples, became masters, under the master's office.
The religion of the very wise teacher was magnified and extolled to such a degree by the inhabitants of Britain, in that his equal was neither found, nor could be found, owing to superior merits. He used to fast like the hermit Antony: most thoroughly devoted to religion, he used to pray clad in goat's skin. If anything was given to him, he would forthwith expend it upon the poor. He abstained from milk-foods and honey: flesh was hateful to him: fresh-water herbs were rather a favourite dish with him: he ate barley-bread mixed with ashes, and drank spring water daily. He used not to take a bath, a habit very much in favour by this nation. Thinness appeared in his face, and he seemed like a man suffering under a very serious fever. It was his habit to go into the river at midnight, where he would remain unmoved until he had said the Lord's Prayer three times. Having done this, he would repair to his oratory and pray there on his knees unto the divine majesty until broad daylight. He used to sleep moderately, and to lie upon a stone, clothed with only a single garment. He used to eat without satisfying his wants, contented with his share of the heavenly reward; the longing of his heart was after heavenly rewards.
He warned men to contemn, he advised them to scorn mere transitory things. He was the most renowned preacher throughout the three kingdoms of Britain. Kings feared him as a man to be feared, and obeyed him after hearing his acceptable preaching. In the time of king Trifinus, he preached every Lord's day in his church by the sea-shore, in the district of Pepidiauc, with a countless number of people listening to him. And when he was once just beginning to preach, the words of the preaching were checked in the preacher himself; and the people were struck with amazement at the wonderful retention. On finding this, St. Gildas bade all who were present to go out, that he might be able to know whether it was owning to one of them that this impediment to the divine preaching was caused; and yet, even after their withdrawal, he could not preach. He then asked whether there was any man or women hiding in the church. Nonnita, who was with child, and was destined to become the mother of the most holy boy, Dewi, answered him: I, Nonnita, am staying here between the walls and the door, not wishing to mingle with the crowd. Having heard this, he bade her go out; and when she had gone out he called the people. They were called, and came to listen to the preaching of the gospel. At the close of the sermon, he asked the angel of God the purport of the above-mentioned matter, to wit, why when he had begun to preach he had failed to proceed to the end. And he revealed the matter to him in such words as these: Nonnita, a saintly woman, remains in the church, who is now with child, and is destined, with great grace, to give birth to a boy before whom thou couldst not preach, the divine power withholding thy speech. The boy that is to come will be of greater grace: no one in your parts will equal him.
"To him will I leave this part of the country: he will quickly grow and flourish form one period of life to another. For an angel, the messenger of God declared unto me this as my true destiny." Whence it happened that the most holy preacher Gildas crossed over to Ireland, where he converted a great number of people to the Catholic faith.
St. Gildas was the contemporary of Arthur, the king of the whole of Britain, whom he loved exceedingly, and whom he always desired to obey. Nevertheless his twenty-three brothers constantly rose up against the afore-mentioned rebellious king, refusing to own him as their lord; but they often routed and drove him out from forest and the battlefield. Hueil, the elder brother, an active warrior and most distinguished soldier, submitted to no king, not even to Arthur. He used to harass the latter, and to provoke the greatest anger between them both. He would often swoop down from Scotland, set up conflagrations, and carry off spoils with victory and renown. In consequence, the king of all Britain, on hearing that the high-spirited youth had done such things and was doing similar things, pursued the victorious and excellent youth, who, as the inhabitants used to assert and hope, was destined to become king. In the hostile pursuit and council of war held in the island of Minau, he killed the young plunderer. After the murder the victorious Arthur returned, rejoicing greatly that he had overcome his bravest enemy. Gildas, the historian of the Britons, who was staying in Ireland directing studies and preaching in the city of Armagh, heard that his brother had been slain by king Arthur. He was grieved at hearing the news, wept with lamentation, as a dear brother for a dear brother. He prayed daily for his brother's spirit; and, moreover, he used to pray for Arthur , his brother's persecutor and murderer, fulfilling the apostolic commandment, which says: Love those who persecute you, and do good to them that hate you.
Meanwhile, the most holy Gildas, the venerable historian, came to Britain, bringing with him a very beautiful and sweet-sounding bell, which he had vowed to offer as a gift to the Bishop of the Roman Church. He spent the night as a guest honourably entertained by the venerable abbot Cadocus, in Nant Carban. The latter pointed out the bell to him, and after pointing to it, handled it; and after handling it wished to buy it at a great price; but its possessor would not sell it. When king Arthur and the chief bishops and abbots of all Britain heard of the arrival of Gildas the Wise, large numbers from among the clergy and people gathered together to reconcile Arthur for the above-mentioned murder. But Gildas, as he had done when he first heard the news of his brother's death, was courteous to his enemy, kissed him as he prayed for forgiveness, and with a most tender heart blessed him as the other kissed in return. When this was done, king Arthur, in grief and tears, accepted the penance imposed by the bishops who were present, and led an amended course, as far as he could, until the close of his life.
Then the illustrious Gildas, a peace-making and Catholic man, visited Rome, and presented the aforementioned bell to the Bishop of the Roman Church; but when the bell was shaken by the hands of the bishop, it would give forth no sound. Therefore, on seeing this, he thus said: O thou, man beloved of God and men, reveal unto me what happened unto thee on thy journey to make this presentation. And he revealed that the most holy Cadoc, abbot of the church of Nancarvan, had wished to buy the bell, but that he had refused to sell what he had vowed to offer to the apostle St. Peter. When the Apostolic bishop heard this, he said: I know the venerable abbot Cadoc, who seven times visited this city, and Jerusalem three times, after countless dangers and incessant toil. I consent that, if he comes again and wishes to possess it, thou mayest give it to him. For, in consequence of this present miracle, it has been decreed that he should have it. Gildas, therefore, took back the bell after it was blessed, and returned; he brought it back and bestowed it gratuitously upon St. Cadoc. When received by the hands of the abbot and struck, it forthwith sounded, to the surprise of all. Then it remained as an asylum for all who carried it throughout the whole of Gwalia, and whosoever swore illegally throughout that land, he was deprived of the use of his tongue, or if an evil-doer would straightway confess his crime.
Cadoc, the abbot of the church of Nancarban, asked the teacher Gildas to superintend the studies of his schools for the space of one year; and on being requested, he superintended them most advantageously, receiving no fee from the scholars except the prayers of the clergy and scholars. And there he himself wrote out the work of the four evangelists, a work which still remains in the church of St. Cadoc, covered all over with gold and silver in honour of God, of the holy writer, and of the Gospels. The inhabitants of Wales hold this volume as a most valuable possession in their oaths, and neither dare open it in order to look into it, nor confirm peace and friendship between hostile parties, unless it be present, specifically placed there for the purpose.
At the close of the year, and when the scholars were retiring from study, the saintly abbot Cadoc and the excellent master, Gildas, mutually agreed to repair to two islands, viz., Ronech and Echin. Cadoc landed in the one nearer to Wales, and Gildas in the one that lies over against England. They were unwilling to be hindered in the church offices by the conflux of men; and, on this account, they could think of no better plan than to leave the valley of Carvan and resort to the secrecy of an island. Gildas founded there an oratory in honour of the holy and indivisible Trinity, and close by it was his bed-chamber. It was not in it, however, that he had his bed, but placed upon a steep cliff, where, upon a stone, he lay until midnight, watching and praying to Almighty God. Then he would enter the church quite faint with cold; but, for God's sake, the cold was sweet and endurable to him. He used to take some small fish in a net, and eggs from birds' nests; and it was on this, which sufficed him for nourishment, that he lived. The one used to visit the other. This mode of living lasted for the space of seven years.
The supreme Creator, seeing that his chosen servant, Gildas had no constant supply of water beyond the drops of rain which fell upon the stones and were caught as they trickled down, caused a stream to flow out from a steep cliff and out it flowed, and still flows out, and will remain without exhaustion. While St. Gildas was thus persevering, devoting himself to fastings and prayers, pirates came from the islands of the Orcades, who harassed him by snatching off his servants from him when at their duties, and carrying them to exile, along with spoils and all the furniture of their dwelling. Being thereby exceedingly distressed, he could not remain there any longer: he left the island, embarked on board a small ship, and, in great grief, put in at Glastonia, at the time when king Melvas was reigning in the summer country. He was received with much welcome by the abbot of Glastonia, and taught the brethren and the scattered people, sowing the precious seed of the heavenly doctrine. It was there that he wrote the history of the kings of Britain. Glastonia, that is, the glassy city, which took its name from glass, is a city that had its name originally in the British tongue. It was besieged by the tyrant Arthur with a countless multitude on account of his wife Gwenhwyfar, whom the aforesaid wicked king had violated and carried off, and brought there for protection, owing to the asylum afforded by the invulnerable position due to the fortifications of thickets of reed, river, and marsh. The rebellious king had searched for the queen throughout the course of one year, and at last heard that she remained there. Thereupon he roused the armies of the whole of Cornubia and Dibneria; war was prepared between the enemies.
When he saw this, the abbot of Glastonia, attended by the clergy and Gildas the Wise, stepped in between the contending armies, and in a peaceable manner advised his king, Melvas, to restore the ravished lady. Accordingly, she who was to be restored, was restored in peace and good will. When these things were done, the two kings gave to the abbot a gift of many domains; and they came to visit the temple of St Mary and to pray, while the abbot confirmed the beloved brotherhood in return for the peace they enjoyed and the benefits which they had conferred, and were more abundantly about to confer. Then the kings returned reconciled, promising reverently to obey the most venerable abbot of Glastonia, and never to violate the most sacred place nor even the districts adjoining the chief's seat.
When he had obtained permission from the abbot of Glastonia and his clergy and people, the most devout Gildas desired to live again a hermit's life upon the bank of a river close to Glastonia, and he actually accomplished his object. He built a church there in the name of the holy and indivisible Trinity, in which he fasted and prayed assiduously, clad in goat's hair, giving to all an irreproachable example of a good religious life. Holy men used to visit him from distant parts of Britain, and when advised, returned and cherished with delight the encouragements and counsels they had heard from him.
He fell sick at last, and was weighed down with illness. He summoned the abbot of Glastonia to him, and asked him, with great piety, when the end of his life had come, to cause his body to be borne to the abbey of Glastonia, which he loved exceedingly. When the abbot promised to observe his requests, and was grieved at the requests he had heard, and shed copious tears, St. Gildas, being now very ill, expired, while many were looking at the angelic brightness around his fragrant body, and angels were attending upon his soul. After the mournful words of commendation were over, the very light body was removed by the brethren into the abbey; and amid very loud wailing and with the most befitting funeral rites, he was buried in the middle of the pavement of St. Mary's church; and his soul rested, rests, and will rest, in heavenly repose. Amen.
Glastonia was of old called Ynisgutrin, and is still called so by the British inhabitants. Ynis in the British language is insula in Latin, and gutrin is vitrea (made of glass). But after the coming of the English and the expulsion of the Britons, that is, the Welsh, it received a fresh name, Glastigberi, according to the formation of the first name, that is English glass, Latin vitrum, and beria a city; then Glastiberia, that is, the City of Glass.
Caradog of Nancarban's are the words;
Who reads, may he correct; so wills the author.
Translated from the original Latin by Hugh Williams and published in the Cymmrodorion Record Series, 1899