Monday, 25 May 2009

European Context

The Goths sacked Rome in 410. Rome was sacked by the Vandals in 455, roughly the date when the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles claim the Angles arrived in the south of Britain. Who were the Goths and Vandals?

Archaeological History of Młochów, Poland (Pdf on Fileden) sets a small iron producing settlement in central Poland from the 1st and 2nd Centuries AD into the wider context of the Roman conflict against the Barbarians and the eventual sacking of Rome. The people who lived in Młochów are believed to have been Vandals before the emigrations that led them round Europe to Rome. They were probably supplanted by the Goths, but the Młochów site fails before then and says little about them. The Goths reached Rome first by a more direct route.

NB: the file is quite large - it contains pictures, so it may be better to save to your computer rather than open directly.

The views of Polish archaeologist, Stefan Woyda are presented in the note. He believed that the Vandals around Warsaw (more correctly the Przeworsk Culture) were consciously developing a large armed force for a united Barbarian world that would defeat the Romans and conquer Europe.

Anyone with a specific interest in Anglo-Saxon production of iron or pottery may find some interesting background if they have no knowledge of Central European production in this period.

Friday, 27 February 2009

Gildas - History Unified Translation

Part 2 of this work on Gildas' Epistle is a comparison and analysis of the Giles and Mommsen translations of the Epistle's history. It was originally only intended to be a working document, but enthusiasm took over. It may be a bit rough in places and subject to future change as overall work progresses. (I have a book to translate, which may keep me busy for a few months.)

I don't know when I will have time to insert the full text on this site, but a PDF version from Fileden is available. Some introductory notes have been added below, however. The full introduction includes a number of internet source links.

Resulting from this analysis and from second thoughts, there are some changes in Part 1 - The Political Philosophy, also available as PDF. The links in the previous post have been changed although the text here on the site has not (yet).


Also known as:

De Excidio Britanniae: The Ruin of Britain / On the Ruin of Britain / On the Fall of Britain
De Excidio et Conquestu Britanniae: On the Ruin and Conquest of Britain
The Groans of the Britons


Adjusted for difference in translations by Giles and Williams
and with commentary on their translations


1. The introduction to Part 1 - The Political Philosophy provides general background to Gildas' Epistle and this work.

2. This second Part includes an extract from Gildas' Epistle covering paragraphs 5 to 26 of the History section, in which Gildas describes the history of the Britons. Unlike in Part 1, it uses wording directly from the two translations. Although it started from the Giles translation, it has been compared in detail to Williams' version and, sometimes, Mommsen's Latin. The footnotes describe many of the changes, although a few have been made where Williams seems to have a more fluid English although the meaning remains the same. Religious texts have been removed and a little extraneous material, although there is very little of either in this part of the Epistle. In a very limited number of cases, there have been discrepancies in the translation of individual words between and within the two English versions that might be misleading. Replacement words have been inserted based on the Latin version that may not be in either of the original texts, but which is considered to be clearer and more coherent. The footnotes explain these changes.

3. The two versions rarely have identical text and it has been a personal decision on whether the differences are important or not. The particular focus in this analysis was to obtain a composite view of Gildas' history in preparation for considering the degree to which Gildas may have derived his description from a limited range of facts so that he could make it into a coherent story The reader with specific interests should not assume that lack of comment here means that differences are insignificant for their purposes. However, this analysis should still show the general way in which the two vary.

4. Comparison with the Latin version started towards the end of the compilation. It has not been systematic, starting first to clarify some of the more puzzling differences and then extending to just a few other places, as shown in the footnotes. Comments on the Latin should be viewed as unreliable. The aim was simply to compare words, with no hope of understanding grammar, etc. This may seem a reasonable objective, but it cannot be assumed that the flow of meaning of either the original or translation is the same as producing a list of translated words. The footnotes aim to clarify when this is considered to be a major problem.

5. The overall quality of the two translations is not known and there has been no attempt for this analysis to make any judgement. Indeed, the Latin version(s) used by or equivalent to Giles' source have not been found so this is not sensible. Williams uses Mommsen's Latin version. Although, as he says in his introduction, Williams has replaced Gildas' own words with external material in religious texts, this should not have affect this part of the Epistle. A footnote by Williams for paragraph 26 suggests that Mommsen has changed Gildas' original Latin to provide clarification in line with wider historical expectations in place. It may therefore be that Mommsen's Latin is an interpretation rather than a reproduction of the Epistle. If so, this introduces three levels of possible error for Williams, compared with Giles' two - his own translational and source material errors. No assumption should be made, however, that Giles is therefore more reliable. Nor should it be assumed that he is less reliable if the footnotes suggest that he differs from Mommsen's Latin as his original Latin text may also be different. The footnotes point out the most likely places where source material is different. (There also some endnotes, giving some general thoughts, in addition to those in Part 1 - the Political Philosophy.)

Thursday, 12 February 2009

Gildas - The Epistle


Open PDF version from FileDen

Also known

De Excidio Britanniae: (On) The Ruin of Britain / On the Fall of Britain

De Excidio et Conquestu Britanniae: On the Ruin and Conquest of Britain

The Groans of the Britons


1. This fifth or sixth century work by Saint Gildas the Wise is widely known in Britain as one of the earliest examples of surviving British literature and because it provides the earliest details of the wars between the Britons and the Anglo-Saxons. Particular interest comes because he is the first to mention the battle of Badon Mount, which is one of the battles of Arthur of the Britons. It is often recognised that Gildas was not a historian and the Epistle is usually described as an attack on the morals of his contemporaries. Some commentators add, perhaps with the knowledge that it subsequently happened, that he is forecasting the downfall of the Britons. However, whilst his preaching is dominant in terms of space taken, it is also clearly an addition to the originally planned work.

2. This version allows the reader to understand Gildas' real purpose. It is a work of political philosophy. Gildas combines the religious, metaphysical notion of a chosen people, historical analysis of the cyclical nature of the upward evolution of the people and analysis of the necessary political and moral attributes for continued upward development. Within this, he invents the theoretical concept of British nationality and identifies the existence of the island nature of the British homeland as a determining feature of their past and future development. He clearly identifies the concept of "Fortress Britain" as it became known much later. Although he does not identify it, he clearly describes the narrow, island mentality that has featured in this development. His historical analysis could, with little difficulty, be extended to present day Britain. If change is needed, it would reflect the impact of technological that Gildas could not have foreseen.

3. The Epistle, however, stands out as an even greater step in European thought. He is the first writer to set out the principle of Christian nationalism in an intellectual world still used to the unifying force of the Roman Empire and which was dominated by the Christian church. Apart from language, he anticipates the fundamental building blocks of the creation of nations from smaller city states, principalities, etc. He prescribes a nationalist morality that was to be adopted throughout the Christian world, in which many countries have viewed themselves as having their own special place in God's plan. It is this morality that Nietzsche eventually decided had failed, leading him to proclaim "God is dead". In hindsight, most of this may appear to be self-evident. It has to be remembered, however, that Gildas' world was fragmented and Christianity morality targeted personal behaviour, not kingdoms - divine right - or peoples.

4. As a philosopher of history, Gildas describes British development as being internally cyclical and progressive, but with the potential to fail. He describes development as being the battle of the natural tendencies of man with political and personal morality. His concept of the Britons, Jews and perhaps Romans and Greeks, as chosen people pre-dates by about a thousand years similar concepts of nations having a special place in history, which ultimately resulted in Hegel's Philosophy of History. Gildas does not, however, relate this concept to world dominance. His analysis follows Jewish and British history, whilst taking account of Roman history and, possibly, Greco-Roman mythology. He clearly identifies the cyclical nature of world history in the rise and fall of the Jews and describes in passing the decline of the Romans.

5. None of this is widely recognised. Indeed, in researching this version, no source has been found that even referred to the Epistle in this way. Some of the above opinions are therefore consciously strengthened in counter-balance.

6. This is a highly simplified version of the Epistle, in which words, grammar and structure have been altered to make them more easily understandable. It aims to eliminate purely religious and emotional content where compatible with producing a sensible text.

7. The text here is primarily based on a translation by J. A. Giles. This is widely available on the internet in various formats, with just one link here. It has been regularly checked against a translation by Dr Mommsen, as edited by Hugh Williams from It is hoped that the use of both of these will limit the obvious potential of miss-interpreting an English translation of historic Latin copies of an even more ancient and difficult to understand Latin original.

8. The headings in italics are all new to this edition. The footnotes (at page bottom in PDF) have been added to focus on the meaning of the political philosophy. The end notes cover many different interpretative aspects, some of which relate to the philosophy, the rest -in the PDF version - to historical facts and other features of interest. In producing these, the aim has been to avoid outside influence as much as possible and to maximise information from the text itself. Mommsen's notes have only been read in search of translation information, but this has often led to other, perhaps more interesting, information. His notes are, however, a good example of the way people interpret Gildas in the light of their view of history. References to Mommsen's notes include all notes in the Willaims text. Ideas that are dependent on Mommsen have therefore been deleted. This ignorance-based version aims to allows Gildas to speak for himself.

9. This is a work in progress. Further development work needs to be undertaken on identifying Gildas' factual knowledge and from there, on describing how he may have invented his history. A wide number of comments and analysis are also intended, much of which is foreshadowed in the endnotes. Full credits, acknowledgements and anything else that comes to mind at the time will also be included.

10. Other work already in progress includes a more readable version of the first 400 years of English history from the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle; a historical version of Adamnan's Life of Columba with internet links for those interested in starting to learn about Scots/Irish history and affiliated, but more modern descriptions of serfdom and Christian church sainthood. Work on linking Bede's Ecclesiastical history to the Anglo Saxon Chronicle is yet to start, with a side interest in seeing if he is the person identified by the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle as having lied about history in the Northumberland/Mercia church conspiracy against Canterbury, which itself may have been partly inspired by Gildas' Epistle.

Copyright: Steve Woods, 2009
Młochów, Poland

For free private copying and circulation until the end of 2009. A revised completed version is planned to be available before that date. The original Gildas material is public domain.




Also known as:

De Excidio Britanniae: (On) The Ruin of Britain / On the Fall of Britain
De Excidio et Conquestu Britanniae: On the Ruin and Conquest of Britain
The Groans of the Britons



Gildas presents his apologies; sets out the subject and method of his

1. Whatever I may write in this my epistle in my rough, but well-meaning manner, let no one suppose that it springs from contempt of others, or that I foolishly consider myself to be better. I write with sadness rather than for show. For, unfortunately, the subject of my complaint is the general destruction of everything that is good, and the general growth of evil throughout the land. I feel great for my country in her distress and would rejoice to see her revive.

It is my present purpose to relate the deeds of a lazy and apathetic race, rather than the exploits of those who have been courageous in the field.

With much mental anguish, anxiety of spirit and with guilt in my heart, I have kept silence whilst I contemplated all these things. For ten years or more, my inexperience, and my unworthiness have prevented me from taking the role of public critic.

Examples of punishments suffered by the biblical chosen people3


  • How the illustrious lawgiver, for one word of doubt, was not allowed to enter the desired land4;
  • That all but two of God's people were slain in the deserts of Arabia for breaking the law of God. Yet God had so loved them that he had made a way for them through the Red Sea, had fed them with bread from heaven and water from rock. He had made their armies invincible simply by lifting up his hand;
  • That they had crossed the River Jordan and entered the unknown land. It had taken just the sound of a trumpet for the walls of the city to fall, but many of them had died because of the theft of a cloak and a little gold from the inhabitants.
  • The breach of their treaty with the Gibeonites brought destruction upon many, even though they had been tricked into agreeing it.

I took warning from the sins of the people which led to the criticisms of the prophets and of Jeremiah, with his fourfold Lamentations written in alphabetic order.

Comparison of the contemporary situation with that of the biblical chosen people

I saw in my own time, as that prophet (Jeremiah) also had complained5:

  • that the city had sat down lone and widowed, which before was full of people;
  • that the queen of nations and the princess of provinces (ie the church), had become of secondary importance;
  • That the gold had become dim and the excellent colour (which is the brightness of God's word) changed;
  • that the sons of the Holy City (ie of holy mother church), once famous and clothed in the finest gold, grovelled in dung.

What added intolerably to the weight of grief of both that illustrious man and mine, was that they "were fairer than snow, more ruddy than old ivory, more beautiful than sapphire." Different between us, though, is that my people are low quality, whilst he mourned the loss of the happy and prosperous condition of his.

Rejection of the original Chosen People and Selection of the new Chosen People

These and many other passages in the ancient Scriptures I regarded as a kind of mirror of human life. I turned also to the New Scriptures, wherein I read more clearly what perhaps was dark to me before; for the darkness was deaf, and truth now shed her steady light6. I read therein that the Lord had said,

  • "I did not only come to the house of Israel;"
  • "But the children of this kingdom shall be cast out into outer darkness";
  • "There shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth",
  • "It is not good to take the children's meat and to give it to dogs:",
  • "Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites!"
  • "Many shall come from the east and the west, and shall sit down with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven:"
  • And on the contrary, "I will then say to them, 'Depart from me, ye workers of iniquity!' "

I read:

  • "Blessed are the barren, and the teats which have not given suck;"
  • On the contrary, "Those, who were ready, entered with him to the wedding;Afterwards came the other virgins also, saying 'Lord, Lord, open to us' To whom it was answered, 'I do not know you.' "

I heard, however, "Whoever shall believe and be baptised shall be saved, but whoever shall not believe shall be damned."

I read in the words of the apostle that the branch of the wild olive was grafted upon the good olive, but that it should nevertheless be cut off from the root if it did not hold itself in fear, but entertained lofty thoughts.

I knew the mercy of the Lord, but I also feared his judgement. I praised his grace, but I feared the judgement of every man according to his actions. Perceiving the sheep of the same fold to be different, I commended Peter for his emphatic acknowledgement of Christ, but called Judas most wretched, for his love of covetousness; I thought Stephen most glorious on account of his martyrdom, but Nicholas wretched for his mark of unclean heresy: I read assuredly, "They had all things common:"7 It is also written, "Why have ye conspired to tempt the Spirit of God ?"

Comments on the spiritual state of the people of Britain and its potential consequences

I saw how much security had grown upon the men of our time, as if there were nothing to cause them fear.8

These things, therefore, and many more, which for brevity's sake we have determined to omit9, I revolved again and again in my amazed mind with regret in my heart. And I thought to myself, God's peculiar people to whom he had said, 'My first begotten Israel,' - the royal seed, and holy nation, its priests, prophets, and kings, throughout many ages, his servant and apostle, and the members of his primitive church; these were chosen from all the people of the world. If God's people were not spared when they deviated from the right path, what will he do to the darkness of this our age, in which is found an innate, indelible, and irremediable weight of false and unorthodox beliefs? This in addition to all the usual huge and heinous sins committed in common with all wicked people.

Gildas balances the reasons for keeping silent and speaking out

I say to myself: "Why, wretched man, is it given to you to oppose the force of so violent a torrent as if you were an illustrious and learned teacher? Why is it for you to speak against such a series of inveterate crimes that have spread far and wide without interruption for so many years. Hold your peace: to do otherwise, is to tell the foot to see and the hand to speak. Britain has rulers, and she has watchmen: why do you so uselessly chatter and pout?" She has such, I say; not too many, perhaps, but surely not too few, but they are bent down and pressed beneath a heavy burden: they have not time to breathe.10

My senses, therefore, preoccupied themselves with such objections and with others yet more strong11. They struggled no short time, in a fearful strait, whilst I read,"There is a time for speaking, and a time for keeping silence.

At length, the argument for speaking prevailed. Am I not bold enough to be marked with the beautiful mark of golden liberty, like those (Saints) to whom God reveals his mysteries, who rank as reasoning beings next only to the angels12? If I am not that bold, I should at least be like the understanding ass. She would not carry forward the king on his way to curse God's people. But in the narrow pass of the vineyard she crushed his loosened foot, and thereby felt the lash. He beat her innocent sides with his ungrateful and furious hand. Though he was undeserving, and she had been to that day dumb, she nevertheless pointed out to him the heavenly messenger standing in his way holding the naked sword, but whom he had not seen.13

Wherefore in zeal for the house of God and for his holy law, forced down this path either by the reasoning of my own thoughts or by the pious entreaties of my brethren14, I now discharge the debt so long exacted of me.15

Expected reaction to the epistle

Though lowly in style, I think this is faithful and friendly to all Christ's youthful soldiers. However, it will be severe and unacceptable in the minds of those who recklessly desert their morality and faith. The former, if I am not deceived, will receive this with the tears of God's love; the latter will receive it with sorrow: a balance of anger and fear - consciences contemplating their sin and knowing they must repent.16


2. I will say a few words about:

  • the situation of Britain [paras 3-4]

  • her disobedience
  • and subjection, her rebellion, second subjection and slavery [paras 5 - 7]
  • her religious persecution, martyrs and heresies of different kinds [paras 8 – 12]
  • her tyrants, her two hostile and ravaging nations [paras 13-14]
  • her first devastation, her defence, her second devastation and second taking revenge [paras 14 – 18]
  • her third devastation, famine, and the letters17 to Agitius [paras 19 – 21]
  • her victory and crimes [paras 20 – 21]
  • the sudden rumour of enemies [para 22]
  • her famous disease [para 22]
  • her counsels [paras 22-23]
  • her last enemy - far more cruel than the first; the destruction of her cities, and of the survivors [paras 23 – 26]; and finally,
  • her peace in these our times. [para 26]


An idealistic description of Britaini

3. The island of Britain is situated on almost the outer border of the earth, towards the north19and west. It stretches out from the south-west towards the north pole, and is eight hundred miles long and two hundred broad, except where various headlands stretch farther into the sea. It is surrounded by the ocean, which forms winding bays, and is strongly defended by this ample, and, if I may so call it, impassable barrier, save on the south side, where the narrow sea affords a passage to Gaul20. It is enriched by the mouths of two noble rivers, the Thames and the Severn, by which foreign luxuries were of old imported, and by other streams of less importance. It is famous for twenty-eight cities, and has a number of castles with walls, towers, strong gates, and houses with high defensive walls, provided with all necessary instruments of defence21. Its plains are spacious. Its hills are pleasantly situated and adapted for superior cultivation, where flowers of various colours, trodden by the feet of man, give it the appearance of a lovely picture. Its mountains are admirably calculated for the alternate pasturage of cattle. It is decked with clear springs and abundant streams wandering over snow white sands. It has transparent rivers flowing gently and it is irrigated by abundant lakes.22

Lament on the character of the people of Britain

4. This island, from the time of its being first inhabited23, rebels, sometimes against God, sometimes against her own citizens, and frequently, also, against foreign kings and their subjects. What can be worse than to fail to show affection to one's own people, or to refuse the respect due to those in higher positions?24


I shall omit:

  • those ancient errors common to all mankind before Christianity;
  • details of the pagan idols of my country with their stiff and deformed features, almost more numerous than those of Egypt. We still see some of these mouldering away inside or outside deserted temples.25
  • descriptions of mountains, springs, hills and rivers, which now are servant to the use of men, but once were a curse and destruction to them, and to which the people paid divine honour.ii
  • the bygone times of our cruel rulers, whose notoriety spread to far distant countries; so that Porphyry, in the east, who was always so fierce against the Christian church, added that "Britain is a landfertile in tyrants". 26

The source of information of invasions by the Romans on Britain and the Britons on the Romans

I will only endeavour to relate the evils which Britain suffered in the times of the Roman emperors27, and those which she caused to distant states. I shall not follow the writings and records of my own country, which (if there were any) have been burnt by the fires of the enemy, or have accompanied my exiled countrymen into distant lands. I shall be guided by foreign writers28 as far as in my power, although they are by no means clear, being broken and interrupted in many places29.

The Roman invasions of Britain

5. The rulers of Rome had obtained the empire of the world: they had conquered all the neighbouring nations and islands towards the east, and made their first peace with the Parthians, who border on India. There was then an ending of war throughout the whole world30. Passing beyond the sea, they imposed submission upon our island by threats alone and without resistance, not by fire, and sword and war machines like other nations.31

6. When afterwards they returned to Rome, for want of pay it is said, a leader32 of the Britons put to death the rulers who had been left among them to develop and manage the enterprises of the Romans. When the report of these things reached the senate, they quickly sent an army, but the Britons had no navy or army, nor other preparation for resistance.33

7. The Romans, having slain many of the rebels or made them into slaves to work the land, returned to Italy. They left behind them taskmasters to control and work the natives, and to reduce their land to a Roman province; so that it was no longer thought to be Britain, but a Roman island; and all their money, whether of copper, gold, or silver, was stamped with Caesar's image.iii

The arrival of Christianity

8. Meanwhile, these islands34 received Christianity in the latter part of the reign of Tiberius Caesar, who spread the religion and threatened death to those who interfered with it.

9. It was received with lukewarm minds, but took root among some of them to a greater or lesser degree until the nine years' persecution of Diocletian, when the churches throughout the whole world were overthrown, the holy books burnt and priests and followers killed. Many abandoned Christianity, whilst ecclesiastical history35 tells of the death and suffering of saints and martyrs.

10. If the places of burial and death of many of those martyrs in Britain had not been interfered with and destroyed by the barbarians, they would still be an inspiration to those who see them. Such were St. Alban of Verulam, and Aaron and Julius, citizens of Caerleon, and the rest, of both sexes, who in different places stood their ground.36

11. St. Alban, with a thousand others, had opened a path across the river Thames. Those who survived, hid themselves in woods, deserted places and secret caves.

12. In less than ten years, the persecution began to fail in consequence of the death of its authors, The old churches were rebuilt and new churches created to the holy martyrs. This continued until the Arian treason from beyond the sea caused deadly dissension within the church37. Taking up every heresy, they inflicted dreadful wounds upon the country.iv

The Britons attack the Roman State

13. At length, a new breed of all-powerful rulers developed in large numbers38, and the island, whilst still nominally a Roman province, cast off Roman institutions and laws. Maximus, a son of Britain39, went into Gaul with a great number of followers, proclaiming himself emperor40 against all moral and legal right. In his campaign against the Roman state, he attached to his rule all the neighbouring towns and provinces by cunning rather than bravery, extending on one side to Spain, on the other to Italy. He set up his government at Trier41, driving one of his emperors out of Rome, and causing the death of the other42. Having cut off the crowned heads of almost all the world, he himself soon lost his head at Aquileia.43

14. After this, Britain is left deprived of all her soldiery and armed bands, of her governors, and of her youth, who went with Maximus, but never again returned.v

Invasions by Scots and Picts

Ignorant of the art of war, Britain suffered for many years from two foreign nations - the Scots from the north-west, and the Picts from the north.44

15. The Britons sent ambassadors to Rome asking for an army to protect them, and offering loyal and ready submission to the authority of Rome if they expel the invaders. A legion was immediately sent, which, when it had crossed over the sea and landed, immediately fought the enemy, and slew great numbers. All of them were driven beyond the borders, rescuing the Britons from impending slavery.45 By the advice of their protectors, the Britons now built a wall across the island from one sea to the other, which being manned with a proper force, might be a terror to the foes and a protection to their friends. But this wall, being made of turf instead of stone46, was of no use to the people, who had no leader to guide them.

16. As soon as the Roman legion returned home, the former enemy, using both their oarsmen and their sails47, break through the boundaries, spreading slaughter on every side, and overrun the whole area48.

17. Again they sent ambassadors imploring assistance from the Romans that their land might not be completely destroyed. They argued that Rome, whose fame was already evaporating, might become a joke in foreign countries.49 Upon this, the compassionate Romans sent their cavalry by land and mariners by sea, and drove any enemies that survived beyond the sea50. It was beyond those same seas that they had transported their plunder year after year without resistance.

18. The Romans left, warning that they would no longer wear out their army fighting against these nomads.51 The islanders should arm themselves ready for battle so that they could protect themselves rather than be controlled by a nation no more powerful. The Romans, with the help of the natives and by public and private contribution52, built a wall different from the former. This was the same structure as walls generally53 and extended in a straight line from sea to sea, between some cities that had previously been built there from fear of their enemies. They then advised the natives, and left them patterns by which to manufacture arms. Moreover, on the south coast where their vessels lay, as there was some apprehension that barbarians might land54, they erected towers at stated intervals, commanding a prospect of the sea; and then left the island never to

19. As soon as they were gone, the Picts and Scots land again cross the Cichican valley in their boats.55 They differ in manners, but with the same thirst for blood, with bearded faces and wearing clothes that fail to cover the body decently56. They seized with greater boldness than before on all the territory to the north of the wall. Our people were thrown from the wall. They left their cities, abandoned the protection of the wall and fled more desperately than before57. The enemy pursued and slaughtered them. Our own people fought each other for food. Thus foreign calamities were augmented by domestic feuds. Hunting became the only source of supplies.

20. Again, therefore, the survivors, appealed to Agitus, a powerful Roman citizen, now consul for the third time58, saying that "the barbarians drive us to the sea; the sea throws us back on the barbarians: thus two modes of death await us, we are either slain or drowned." The Romans, however, could not assist them, and many of the people, wandering in the woods, were forced by famine to surrender to their persecutors to get food. Others, however, hiding in the mountains, caves, and woods, renewed the war. For the first time they defeated their enemies, who had for so many years been living in their country.59 The enemy left our people.vii

21. The invaders therefore return to their winter quarters, determined before long to return60. The Picts for the first time seated themselves at the extremity of the island where they afterwards continued, occasionally plundering and devastating the countryside. However, no sooner were the enemy checked, than the island was deluged with a most extraordinary plenty of all things, greater than ever before, and with it grew up every kind of over-indulgence and immorality61. Kings were anointed, not according to God's law, but by force; although they were quickly put to death by those who had supported them, whatever their merits, because others even more ruthless were chosen to succeed them. If any one of these was milder or more honest than the rest, he was looked upon as the bringer of ruin. Even the representatives of the church slumbered away their time in drunkenness. They were so overtaken by pride, strife, envy, and the confusion of right and wrong, that they even held princes in contempt, as they do to this day.viii

22. Rumours spread that their old enemies were rapidly approaching to destroy and occupy the whole country from one end to the other as before62. But yet they derived no advantage from this news. It was not the sword, but a deadly disease that affected the people, and from which very many died. However, a council was called to decide what should be done to repel the Picts and Scots.

23. Then all the councillors, together with the supreme ruler63, invited the pagan Saxons to protect them and to repel the northern nations.ix Those people whom, when absent, they feared more than death, were invited to live alongside them64. A large number arrived from their homeland in three sailing ships65. They had a prophecy that they would occupy the country for 300 years, for half of which they would plunder and devastate66. They first landed on the eastern side of the island67, by the invitation of the supreme ruler, apparently to fight in favour of the island, but more truly against it. On the success68 of the first arrivals, a larger company sailed from their motherland to join their comrades69. Although they lied about their intentions, the barbarians were thus brought onto the island as soldiers to defend their hosts. They obtained an allowance of provisions, which, being generous for some time, kept them quiet. Yet they complained that their monthly supplies were not sufficient70, and they exaggerated every argument, saying that if they didn't receive more, they would break the treaty and plunder the whole island. They quickly did this.

24. Our enemies in the east destroyed neighbouring towns and lands until they reached the western ocean on the other side of the island71. All the buildings were destroyed with their towers, high stone walls and holy altars levelled to the ground. All the landowners were forced out or killed, together with their bishops, priests, and people.72

25. Some of the survivors were captured in the mountains and killed; others were forced by famine to surrender and be slaves73, running the risk of being instantly slain; some fled overseas74. Others remained in the mountains, cliffs, forests, and the rocks of the seas75. However, when the Saxons had returned home76, many people from different places, who feared that the conflict would spread, joined the survivors77. To defend themselves, they took arms under the leadership of Ambrosius Aurelianus78, the only Roman, of all that nation, to have survived these times79. His parents, Romans of high rank, had been killed in the fighting.80 Now, in our own time, his descendants attack the Saxons, and obtain the victory.81

26. After this, sometimes our countrymen, sometimes the enemy, were victorious, until the year of the siege of Badon Mount, the year in which took place almost the last, but not least, slaughter of our enemies82. Either83 This started forty-four years and one month ago, and was also the year of my birth Or This was forty-four years and one month after the landing of the Saxons and also the time of my birth.x

Yet, to this day, our cities still lie desolate. Our wars with foreigners have ceased, but our civil troubles remain. Kings, officials, people generally, priests and clergymen who had experienced the destruction and recovery, all lived orderly lives according to their several vocations. But these died, and a new generation succeeded, which knew nothing of those terrible times, but only knew of present prosperity84. Truth, justice and morality have been almost completely undermined. Even foreign nations85 accuse us of this.xi


The failings of the Kings of Britain

27. BRITAIN has kings, but they are tyrants; she has judges87, but unjust ones:

  • They are generally engaged in theft and destruction, always targeting the innocent;
  • Whenever they can be bothered with punishment or protection, it is bound to be for the benefit of robbers and criminals;
  • They have many wives, but have sex and adulterous relationships with other women;
  • They often solemnly promise to tell the truth, and equally often lie;
  • They make promises and quickly fail to do what they say;
  • They make war88, but their wars are against their own countrymen and are unjust;
  • They prosecute thieves throughout their country, but their closest companions are robbers, to whom they give friendship and gifts;
  • They give to charitable causes, but they themselves are criminals;
  • They judge, but are rarely concerned with justice;
  • They despise ordinary people and those of low position, but readily praise the blood-thirsty, the self-important, murderers, unmarried couples89 and adulterers;
  • They have many prisoners in their jails, but for personal and political reasons not for the punishment of crimes; and
  • When they are in church they praise God, but when they are outside they think no more of the church than they would a pile of dirty stones.

Description of Five British Kings

28 - 29. Constantine, whose mother ruled Damnonia, knows all about this last crime. He solemnly swore before God, all the saints and the Mother of God90 that he would act openly and honestly towards his countrymen. However, the very same year, he went into church disguised as an abbot and murdered two royal youths and their attendants. Although they defended themselves well, they were without their armour. Their mother was with them. Many years before this, he had committed adultery with many women, having divorced his wife contrary to holy law. I know you are still alive. Why are you so surprised? Why don't you kill yourself? Repent and return to Christianity or be damned.

30. And what about you, Aurelius Conanus? You have also murdered and had illicit sex and adulterous relationships You have destroyed the peace of your country by pursuing civil wars and stealing the wealth of others. Now that you are alone in your own age, remember the hopes of your parents and, though they died young, your brothers. You shall not live to be a hundred, but will die soon unless you return to Christianity.

31. And you, Vortipore, murderer and adulterer, whose hair is growing grey, thou son of a good king, ruler of the Demetians. Why are you so stiff?91 The end of your life is daily approaching. Why do you divorce your wife, and after her death, commit the sin of lust with your daughter? Turn away from evil, and do good; repent or be damned.

32 And you too, Cuneglasse, why have you returned to your old evil? Since you were very young, you have been bear92, rider, ruler of many and driver of the bear's chariot. You despise and slander God and the church. You sandy butcher93, as your name means in Latin. Why did you start this great war against your own country men with your deadly weapons? Why, having kicked out your wife, do you so highly regard her disgusting sister, who had taken a religious vow of chastity? Stop your anger and stop your war against God and the people. Seek forgiveness. Do not have pride in your wisdom and faith in your riches. Change your ways or be damned.

33. And last of all you, dragon of the island94, who has killed many kings and taken their kingdoms. You exceed many both in power and in evil. Whilst you are more liberal than others in giving, you are more immoral. Maglocune, both your kingdom and your height are greater than almost all the other rulers of Britain. I will not mention your many domestic and minor offences, but only those that are already general knowledge.95 Even when you were very young, didn't you attack the king, your uncle, and his army? Even though you have passed the mid-point of your life96 without the death that is divine justice for your bloody actions, you will face violent death and damnation.

34. When your violent rule had been successfully completed according to your wishes97, and you wanted to return to a life of peace and goodness, you were plagued night and day by the guilt of your crimes. You contemplated the meaning of religious services and the life of monks. You yourself publicly took vows as a monk, putting aside the love of power, wealth and selfish desire. And you returned to the monastery as a place of refuge?98 However, no longer do you listen to the voices of the monks or to music in church. Instead, your hear the praises of your followers, to the utter destruction of the neighbours.

35. You hated your first wife. (Not that you could legally have a wife after taking a monk's vows. However, it may be considered a marriage because you had been together some time.) The wife of your brother's son, enjoyed your affections. You are guilty of two murders: that of your nephew and your first wife. After their deaths, you publicly married the widow who caused you to commit these crimes. Return to the way of God or face damnation. When the king listens to lies, all in his kingdom become evil; the good king raises up his kingdom. Not that you haven't been warned: you have had the best teacher of most of Britain. Be careful that you do not become like the fool who, having just woken from a deep sleep, listens to a wise man and says: "What did you say"?99 Stop your anger. Seek forgiveness. Repent.

Postscript to the description of kings

Those who speak against these acts have to act honestly and sincerely, though we may not be great people. We cannot be silent. Those that say that evil is good shall themselves be cursed. Repent, for if you do not listen to us now you will be damned.

36. Not available100

Explanation for quoting biblical texts

37. It was at this point, if not earlier, that I had planned to end this sad history that I might no further outline the deeds of men.101 However, I will set out the fate described in the biblical texts that may await the above five of the rulers of Britain. They will answer for us, as they have always done, should the princes of our age claim that we threaten them with terrors of our own invention, and that we are unwisely meddling in their affairs. For no wise man can doubt how much worse are the sins of this our time than those of the primitive age, given that "It takes two or three witnesses to convict a man for breaking the law of men so that he is punished by death, but how much worse will be the punishment after death for those that ignore the words of Christ?"102

38 - 64. Biblical texts as described in paragraph 37.

The failings of the Clergy of Britain

65. Although I would like to finish at this point, there are too many evil deeds done by bishops and other clergy, including our own monastic order. I must criticise these, as I would be biased if I did not. The people must know that they also need to end their evil and seek redemption. I beg to be pardoned by those whom I praise, admire above all and whom I wish I was like. I will therefore continue even though there are those that already attack me.

66. Britain has priests, but they are fools. Many preach to the people, but often just care for themselves. There are church officials, but some of them are lying thieves. The local clergy do not work for the good of the common people, but think of their own stomachs. These:

  • of the church, but only for the money it brings;

  • teach the people, but do wrong themselves;
  • do not criticise the people when they do wrong, for they themselves do it;
  • don't care about the laws of Christ, but only their own pleasure;
  • speak ill of others, but rarely truthfully;
  • hate the truth, and treat lies as their best friends;
  • hate those who are good, poor, or weak, but give uncaring respect to sinful rich men;
  • preach that money should be given to the needy, but do not give anything themselves;
  • conceal the worst sins of the people, whilst exaggerating any wrong they themselves suffer;
  • evict nuns from their houses, whilst indecently entertaining strange women;
  • put more importance on getting a better position in the church than on morality, defending by any means possible anything they have gained, rather than working hard to improve the position;
  • rarely read the holy texts, but listen to the plays and stories of ordinary men as if they revealed the meaning of life;
  • have a voice like a horse and are very fat, but move quickly when they break the law103;
  • stand proud and tall, but have guilty consciences;
  • are happy to gain the smallest amount of money and unhappy when they lose it;
  • fail to speak in favour of moral law (whether through ignorance or guilt) whilst preventing wise men from speaking, for they are well experienced in the evil ways of the world;
  • buy well-paid church positions such as priest or bishop, for which they have neither the necessary qualifications or experience, and do not take up the duties required of the post.

67 - 68. Text related to the evils of the clergy partly using biblical texts and expanding on paragraph 66.

69. Some might object that not all bishops and priests are bad, as we previously agreed. Some are not heretical or proud and live a good life. We do not deny this, but even though we know them to be pure and virtuous, we will briefly answer.

69 (Continued) - 75. Text related to the failings of the "good" clergy partly using biblical texts.

76 - 91. Biblical texts on the imperfections of the local clergy, expanding on paragraph 66

92 - 107. Biblical texts expanding on the pride and sloth of priests, expanding on paragraph 66

108 - 110. Text related to the pride and sloth of priests partly using biblical texts and expanding on paragraph 66. Paragraph 110, as the last paragraph, has a ritual Christian ending.

Footnotes - a fuller note may be available on the PDF version

i An idealised description of Britain as a new "desired land" suitable for the chosen people (see paragraph 1), recognisable as a Christian earthly paradise. By combining the concept of the chosen people with Britain as a desired land, Gildas establishes shows that the separate tribes/nations should consider themselves as a single people. Gildas completes his principle of unity through commonality- British nationality - and introduces the principle of unity through self interest - fortress Britain He does not state that the people of Britain are now "the" (one and only) chosen people, which can only be inferred from this idealised description and a reference to the Britons being "these his Israelites" in paragraph 26.

ii Stage One of the development of the people of Britain. They are at the lowest level of ignorance and capability.

iii Stage Two: the Britons fight, but it is ineffective, badly led and unprepared. The result is a situation worse than existed before the revolt.

iv Stage Three: the Britons have advanced by accepting the necessary principles of spiritual morality and showing the capability to achieve the highest personal goals. However they mix some strength
with great weakness and perversity.

v Stage Four: Britain has become independent. It is unclear whether it has a single ruler in control or whether it was broken down into smaller governing areas, perhaps with an overall controlling "supreme tyrant".Britons achieve victory in foreign wars, but it is short lived and self destructive. Maximus appears to be one of the most successful British warrior kings ever, with qualities that Gildas seeks: a powerful leader of a united Briton able to gather a successful army (and presumably navy). However, Gildas' completely condemns Maximus for his failure to ensure the long-term safety of Briton and for failing to follow the moral law governing succession of rulers was accentuated because of his respect for Maximus' positive capabilities. Gildas seems to condemn foreign imperialism
on the part of the Britons.

vi Stage Five: Briton has returned to a position where it is unable to defend itself, must rely on external support and give up its independence. The lack of a single leader is emphasised. There is technical
capability and potential but it is ineffective.

vii Stage Six: the Britons have learnt that they must and can defend
themselves. The overall picture, however, remains of incapability.

viii Stage Seven: the Britons have returned to a position of complete incapability of defending themselves. The description is so similar to Gildas' description of his contemporary kings and clergy, that it is likely that Gildas was trying to make clear the fate that awaited
them if they did not prepare themselves.

ix Stage Eight: the Britons have understood the principle of working together and creating a force to defend themselves. However, by relying on foreigner fighters they cause their own destruction. (Gildas' summary in paragraph 2 separates paragraph 22 and 23 into three parts. This seems to be a historical rather than an evolutionary

x Stage Nine: The Britons have learnt to fight in a unified way and proven their capability of defeating their enemies. However, they remain
dependent on foreign leadership.

xi Stage Ten: the Britons have returned to a way of life that historically means that they will be completely incapable of defending

Selected Endnotes - see the PDF version for others

3 Gildas sets out group and individual responsibility. The failure of an individual can cause suffering generally. Although he is considering the fate of nations, he also resolves the paradox of a good god punishing the innocent.

6 Gildas solves the paradox that the Christian God's chosen people are Jews, not Christians. The story of the virgins at the wedding, in particular, sets out a limited selection of the new chosen people. This would not have been acceptable in a world where the religion was being adopted more widely. Gildas may have viewed the Christian world as stable.The enduring nature of the metaphor of the king and the ass can be seen from Nietzsche's "Also Sprach Zarathustra", where two kings and a speaking ass are a recurrent theme in part four (published 1892). When the theme is introduced, Zarathustra hides from the two kings, but they hear him speak. They are all searching for the Higher Man and Zarathustra praises the kings and suggest they go together. The ass agrees. The difference between the two neatly summarises the change in the political influence of Christianity. Both Gildas and Nietzsche are looking for a moral base for the development of mankind. However, after over a thousand years of traditional Christian ethic, as proposed by Gildas, Nietzsche has announced that God is dead and searches instead for the Superman. They can be seen as representing two different ends of the same strand of moral thought.

18 Ignoring the narrowness of Gildas' chosen people, the exclusion of Gildas' religious criticism in this version makes the history appear to be a purely political analysis. This analysis could be extended to present times, which might allow us to guess Gildas' likely view of the current status of Britain. Has the failure of absurd attempts at ruling the world led to Britain being a subject province of the European Union? For those who feel that Gildas' model only works - if it does - because it is too simple and obvious, please see the section "Gildas balances the reasons for keeping silent and speaking out" in paragraph 1 above. Gildas effectively says that his message is so obvious that he can't understand why everyone doesn't understand it.

20 Given later descriptions of invasions from the north and the east, Gildas seems to be saying that, if the Britons acted in the way he describes, the only possible risk to the island is from the south. The concept of "Fortress Britain"is established here. The term has been regularly used to describe Britain in the 1939-1945 Second World War and since.

30 Gildas' extreme respect for the pagan Romans may have been consistent with Christian ideology. Augustine of Hippo wrote in his "City of God" that Roman success was due to the god of the Christians and that their failure was due to their own immorality. (Written approx. between 410 and 430.) Over a thousand years later, philosophy of history presented the view that the most important nations through history, including the Romans, were imbued by the "world spirit" and responsible for attaining new levels of world development. Combining Gildas' concept of "chosen people" with Augustine's belief that the Christian God was responsible for the success of Rome, gives something very close to the idea of a world spirit. Gildas established the principle of national development and historical analysis: he is clearly influenced by two other nations: Jews and Romans. However, given the state of Europe at the time, Gildas will have been more likely to be concerned about the long-term survival of nations and civilisation than the inevitability of development of civilisation.

34 This is the only reference to the Island of Britain consisting of "islands". This presumably covers an island such as Anglesey, which is so close to the northern coast of Wales that it is difficult to think of it separately. It may also include Hibernia (Ireland), which is otherwise omitted as being a western threat to Britain in paragraph 3 and does not seem to be the home of the Scots in paragraph 14. (In this period of history, "Scots" are generally the people of Ireland and related people in the West of - modern - Scotland.) This would imply that Gildas considered that the people of Ireland were sufficiently Christian to be acceptable for inclusion within his chosen people.

47 This version omits Gildas' poetic language, which would give a mythical quality to the history. Giles translation here is "wafted both by the strength of oarsmen and the blowing wind", which gives a surprisingly positive impression of hated, vicious barbarians. In following this thought through, the fall of the wall in paragraph 19 might be likened to the fall of Troy and Gildas' political vision equated with the independent states of Athens, Sparta, etc united by their Greek nationality. Someone with knowledge of the Roman Aeneid or the Greek Iliad and Odyssey, and other related works might be able to assess the reality of the perception and whether there are other linkages - eg in Gildas' search for strong leaders. It would, however, seem completely inappropriate for Gildas to specifically refer to pagan moralistic fantasies.

88 War is on the positive side of the list. Clearly kings must fight against foreign invaders. However, Gildas seems to condemn wars within the family and within individual countries. He may feel that wars between the kingdoms, for sound moral reasons, would be normal. See paragraph 33, where Maglocune is only specifically condemned for his civil war. This may seem to undermine the proposition of unity against invaders, but may emphasise the importance of fragmented countries being able to unite in the face of external attacks. If Gildas is writing this separately, he may not be focused on emphasising his political message.