GILDAS, or Gildus (c. 516–570), the earliest of British historians (see Celt: Literature, “Welsh”), surnamed by some Sapiens, and by others Badonicus, seems to have been born in the year 516. Regarding him little certain is known, beyond some isolated particulars that may be gathered from hints dropped in the course of his work. Two short treatises exist, purporting to be lives of Gildas, and ascribed respectively to the 11th and 12th centuries; but the writers of both are believed to have confounded two, if not more, persons that had borne the name. It is from an incidental remark of his own, namely, that the year of the siege of Mount Badon—one of the battles fought between the Saxons and the Britons—was also the year of his own nativity, that the date of his birth has been derived; the place, however, is not mentioned. His assertion that he was moved to undertake his task mainly by “zeal for God’s house and for His holy law,” and the very free use he has made of quotations from the Bible, leave scarcely a doubt that he was an ecclesiastic of some order or other. In addition, we learn that he went abroad, probably to France, in his thirty-fourth year, where, after 10 years of hesitation and preparation, he composed, about 560, the work bearing his name. His materials, he tells us, were collected from foreign rather than native sources, the latter of which had been put beyond his reach by circumstances. The Cambrian Annals give 570 as the year of his death.

The writings of Gildas have come down to us under the title of Gildae Sapientis de excidio Britanniae liber querulus. Though at first written consecutively, the work is now usually divided into three portions,—a preface, the history proper, and an epistle,—the last, which is largely made up of passages and texts of Scripture brought together for the purpose of condemning the vices of his countrymen and their rulers, being the least important, though by far the longest of the three. In the second he passes in brief review the history of Britain from its invasion by the Romans till his own times. Among other matters reference is made to the introduction of Christianity in the reign of Tiberius; the persecution under Diocletian; the spread of the Arian heresy; the election of Maximus as emperor by the legions in Britain, and his subsequent death at Aquileia; the incursions of the Picts and Scots into the southern part of the island; the temporary assistance rendered to the harassed Britons by the Romans; the final abandonment of the island by the latter; the coming of the Saxons and their reception by Guortigern (Vortigern); and, finally, the conflicts between the Britons, led by a noble Roman, Ambrosius Aurelianus, and the new invaders. Unfortunately, on almost every point on which he touches, the statements of Gildas are vague and obscure. With one exception already alluded to, no dates are given, and events are not always taken up in the order of their occurrence. These faults are of less importance during the period when Greek and Roman writers notice the affairs of Britain; but they become more serious when, as is the case from nearly the beginning of the 5th century to the date of his death, Gildas’s brief narrative is our only authority for most of what passes current as the history of our island during those years. Thus it is on his sole, though in this instance perhaps trustworthy, testimony that the famous letter rests, said to have been sent to Rome in 446 by the despairing Britons, commencing:—“To Agitius (Aetius), consul for the third time, the groans of the Britons.”

Gildas’s treatise was first published in 1525 by Polydore Vergil, but with many avowed alterations and omissions. In 1568 John Josseline, secretary to Archbishop Parker, issued a new edition of it more in conformity with manuscript authority; and in 1691 a still more carefully revised edition appeared at Oxford by Thomas Gale. It was frequently reprinted on the Continent during the 16th century, and once or twice since. The next English edition, described by Potthast as editio pessima, was that published by the English Historical Society in 1838, and edited by the Rev. J. Stevenson. The text of Gildas founded on Gale’s edition collated with two other MSS., with elaborate introductions, is included in the Monumenta historica Britannica, edited by Petrie and Sharpe (London, 1848). Another edition is in A. W. Haddan and W. Stubbs, Councils and Eccles. Documents relating to Great Britain (Oxford, 1869); the latest edition is that by Theodor Mommsen in Monum. Germ. hist. auct. antiq. xiii. (Chronica min. iii.), 1894.