Surnamed the Wise; born about 516; died at Houat, Brittany, 570. Sometimes he is called “Badonicus” because, as he tells us, his birth took place the year the Britons gained a famous victory over the Saxons at Mount Badon, near Bath, Somersetshire (493 or 516). The biographies of Gildas exist – one written by an unknown Breton monk of the Abbey of Rhuys in the eleventh century, the other by Caradoc, a Welshman in the twelfth century. Both biographies contain unchronological and misleading statements, which have led some critics to reject the lives as altogether valueless. Ussher, Ware, Bale, Pits, and Colgan endeavour to adjust the discrepancies by contending that there were at least two saints named Gildas, hence their invention of such distinctive surnames as “Albanicus”, “Badonicus”, “Hibernicus”, “Historicus”, etc. The more general opinion, however, adopted by Lanigan, Leland, Healy, Stingfleet, Mabilon, Bollandus, and O’Hanlon, is that there was but one Saint Gildas. The discrepancies may be accounted for by the fact that the lives were drawn up in separate countries, and several centuries after the saint existed. As to Caradoc’s statement that Gildas died at Glastonbury, O’Hanlon remarks that Glastonbury appropriated more saints than Gildas.
Both narratives agree in several striking details, and may thus be harmonized: Gildas was born in Scotland on the banks of the Clyde (possibly at Dumbarton), of a noble British family. His father’s name was Cau or Nau; his brother’s, Huel or Cuil. He was educated in Wales under Saint Iltut, and was a companion of Saint Samson and Saint Peter of Léon. Having embraced the monastic state, he passed over to Ireland, where he was advanced to the priesthood. He is said to have lived some time in Armagh, and then to have crossed to North Britain, his teaching there being confirmed by miracles. On his return to Ireland, at the invitation of King Ainmire, he strengthened the faith of many, and built monasteries and churches. The Irish annalists associate him with David and Cadoc in giving a special liturgy or Mass to the second order of Irish saints. He is said to have made a pilgrimage to Rome. On the homeward journey his love of so!itude caused him to retire to the Isle of Houat, off Brittany, where he lived a life of prayer, study and austerity. His place of retreat having become known, the Bretons induced him to establish a monastery at Rhuys on the mainland whither multitudes flocked (Marius Sepet, “St. Gildas de Rhuys”, Paris, s.d.). It was at Rhuys he wrote his famous epistle to the British kings. His relics were venerated there till the tenth century, when they were carried for safety into Berry. In the eighteenth century they were said to be preserved in the cathedral of Vannes. He is the patron of several churches and monasteries in Brittany and elsewhere. His feast is locally observed on 29 January; another feast, 11 May, commemorates the translation of his relics.
The authentic work of Saint Gildas, “De excidio Britannae liber querulus”, is now usually divided into three parts: (1) The preface; (2) A sketch of British history from the Roman invasion to his own time; (3) An epistle of severe invective addressed to five petty British kings – Constantine, Vortipor, Cyneglas, Cynan, and Maelgwn. In the same epistle he addresses and rebukes the clergy whom he accuses of sloth and simony. His writings are clearly the work of a man of no ordinary culture and sanctity, and indicate that the author was thoroughly acquainted with the Sacred Scriptures.
Gildas is regarded as the earliest British historian and is quoted by Bede and Alcuin. Two MSS. copies of his writings are preserved in Cambridge University library.