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The Life of St Gildas

Written in Latin by Caradoc of Llancarfan in the 12th century

Translated by David Parsons in 2004


Nau, King of Scotland, was the most noble of the northern kings. He had 24 sons, successful warriors. One of them was named Gildas.

His parents destined Gildas for academic study. He was a hardworking, intelligent lad, and did well in his studies. He memorised all that his teacher told him, forgetting nothing. Among his people he studied the Seven Arts enthusiastically, until he reached young manhood, when without delay he left his home country.

Gildas in France

Crossing the Channel, he spent seven years most successfully in further studies in Gaul. At the end of the seventh year he returned to Great Britain with a great mass of books of all kinds. As the reputation of this highly distinguished stranger spread, scholars poured in to him from all sides. From him they heard the science of the Seven Disciplines most subtly explained, by which doctrine students change into teachers, under the teacher's honour.

Gildas the sage

The piety of this wisest of teachers was praised and extolled by all the people of Britain so much, because no one was or could be found to equal him in excellence of character. He fasted like St Anthony the Hermit. When he prayed, this most religious man wore a goatskin. Anything he was given, he immediately spent on the poor. He refrained from the sweetness of milk or honey, and hated meat. He preferred fresh-water vegetables. He used to eat barley bread mixed with ash, and drank spring water every day. The bath-house, a favourite resort of his people, he would not enter. His face looked thin and drawn, like someone suffering from a serious fever. He used to go and stand stock still in the river, at midnight, for the time it took him to say the Lord's Prayer three times. This done, he used to return to his prayer hut, and there kneel and pray to the Divine Majesty until daybreak. He slept moderately, lying on a rock and wearing only one garment. He ate without reaching fullness, satisfied only with sharing the heavenly reward, for heavenly rewards were all his desire.

Gildas the preacher

He taught people to discount, and warned them to despise, transitory things. He was the most renowned preacher throughout the three kingdoms of Britain. Kings feared him as one they ought to fear, and obeyed him, when they heard from him preaching that they could accept. Every Sunday he used to preach in a church by the seaside, which was in the Pepidiauc region. This was in the time of King Trifinus. Once a vast crowd of the common people came to hear him, and when he began his sermon, his voice held in the words of his preaching. The crowd were amazed at this strange retention. When St Gildas realised what was happening, he told everyone standing there to leave the building, so that he could find out whether one of them was preventing him from preaching the word of God. But even after they had all gone, he was unable to preach. Next, he asked whether anyone, man or woman, was hiding in the church. Nonnital, who was pregnant with the child who was to be St David, said: "I, Nonnital, am here, between the wall and the door. I didn't want to be in the crowd." On hearing this, Gildas told her to leave, and when she had gone he called the people back. They came when he called, to hear the preaching of the Gospel. When the sermon was over, he asked the angel of the Lord about this matter, namely why he had started to preach and couldn't finish. The angel gave him a revelation such as this: "A holy woman called Nonnita is staying in this church. She is about to have a son with immense grace. It is he who kept you from preaching; he held back your words with divine power. The boy who is to come will be born with greater grace. No one in your part of the country will be his equal. I shall leave this region to him. He will grow quickly and flourish from age to age. For a messenger, an angel of the Lord, declared to me his true destiny."

Gildas in Ireland

That is why Gildas, the most holy preacher, crossed to Ireland, where he converted countless people to the catholic faith.

King Arthur

St Gildas was a contemporary of King Arthur, king of all Great Britain. He loved him dearly and always longed to obey him. His twenty-three brothers, however, resisted this rebel king, refusing to submit to his lordship, and often putting him to flight and driving him out from glade and battlefield. Hueil, the elder brother, who was a constant fighter and very famous soldier, would not obey any king, even Arthur. He used to harry him, provoking the greatest anger between them. He used often to come from Scotland, burning and plundering, and returning with glory and victory. So the King of all Britain, hearing that the great-hearted youth had done such things, and was doing the like, pursued the most victorious youth, who was, according to the talk and hopes of the local inhabitants, going to be an excellent king. After a hostile pursuit they met in battle, and Arthur killed the young brigand on the island of Minau. After that slaughter Arthur returned, happy to have killed his bravest foe. Gildas, the historian of Britain, was still in Ireland at the time, directing studies and preaching in the city of Armagh. He heard of his brother's death at the hands of King Arthur. He grieved at the news, weeping and groaning, as loving brother for loving brother; he prayed for his brother's soul every day, and prayed also for Arthur, carrying out the apostolic command which says: Pray for your persecutors; do good to those who hate you.

The story of the bell

Meanwhile Saint Gildas the venerable historian came to Britain bring with him a very sweet and lovely bell, which he had vowed to offer as a present to the Bishop of the Church of Rome. He stayed one night honourably received by the venerable Abbot Cadocus in Carbana Valley (Llancarfan). The Abbot pointed out the bell to him, and was allowed to handle it. Once he had handled it, he offered to buy it at a high price. the owner refused to sell.

The arrival of Gildas the Wise came to the ears of King Arthur and the leaders of all Britain, bishops and abbots. Countless of the clergy and people came together to reconcile Arthur after the aforementioned murder. Gildas, who had heard the report of his brother's murder, did as he had done when he first heard, and when his enemy asked pardon showed friendship to him, kissed him, and, as they kissed, gave him his blessing in the kindliest spirit. This done, King Arthur with grief and tears accepted the penance laid down by the bishops who stood by, and to the best of his ability amended his ways to the end of his life.

Then the peaceloving catholic Gildas, that exceptional man, travelled to Rome and offered the aforesaid bell to the Bishop of the Roman Church. But when the Bishop took and shook it, it gave out no sound. On seeing this, he said: "O man beloved by God and men, reveal to me what happened about this gift on your journey here." So Gildas revealed that the most holy Cadoc, Abbot of the church at Nancarba, had wanted to buy the bell, but that he had refused to sell what he had vowed to give to St Peter the Apostle. The Pope hearing this said: "I know the venerable Abbot Cadoc. He has visited Rome seven times, and Jerusalem three times, after great dangers and constant labour. I grant you permission to give him what he wants, if he comes again. The miracle we have just witnessed destines him to have the bell." The Pope blessed the bell, and Gildas took it and returned home with it. He gave it to Saint Cadoc freely. Once it was in the Abbot's hands, it immediately rang when it was struck, to the wonder of all. From that time it remained as a refuge for all who carried it, throughout Gwalia, and whoever swore a false oath upon it was either deprived of the use of his tongue, or, if he was a criminal, immediately confessed his crime.

Gildas as headmaster

Cadoc, Abbot of the church of Carbana, asked the learned Gildas to take charge of the students' studies for one year. He did as he was asked, and was a very useful director. He took no pay from the scholars except the prayers of scholars and clergy. He himself wrote out the work of the four Evangelists, and the book, bound in gold and silver, still remains in the church of St Cadoc to the glory of God, of its most holy scribe, and of the Gospels. The people of Wales hold that book most valuable in swearing their oaths, and they do not dare open it to look at, nor do they make treaties of peace and friendship among enemies unless that book is specially set there among them.

Gildas the hermit

When the scholars went for their holidays at the end of the year, Abbot Cadoc and the excellent teacher Gildas by mutual agreement went to two islands, Ronech and Echin. Cadoc took the island nearer Wales, and Gildas that adjacent to England. They didn't want to be hindered from their church duties by the comings and goings of people, and so could find no better plan than to leave the Valley of Carbana and move to a secret island. Gildas established an oratory in honour of the Holy and Undivided Trinity, and near it his bedroom. He did not, however, have his bed in this room, but placed under a high rock, where he used to lie awake until midnight praying upon the rock to Almighty God. Then he used to go to the church. He was terribly cold, but the cold was sweet and bearable to him because of God. He caught little fishes in a net, and took eggs from birds' nests; that was food enough for him to live on. The two men used to visit each other. Their stay in this manner lasted seven years.

Gildas comes to Glastonbury

The supreme Creator, seeing that his dear servant lacked a reliable water supply, besides raindrops that fell on the rocks and were caught in rock pools, caused a stream to flow from the high rock, which flowed, and flows, and will remain without any interruption. While Gildas continued thus to concentrate on fasting and prayers, there came pirates from the Orcadian Islands. They were a great trial to him. They captured the servants who attended him and carried away all the furniture in his dwelling. This was such a blow that he could no longer remain there, so he left the island, took a small boat and sailed to Glastonia where he arrived in great distress. Malvas was at that time King of Somerset. Such a man was worthy to be received, and the Abbot of Glastonia received him. He taught his brothers and various lay people, sowing the seed that must be sowed, of heavenly teaching. There he wrote the History of the Kings of Britain. Glastonbury, i.e. City of Glass, which takes its name from the word glass, is a city originally named in the British language.

Arthur and Guinevere

And so it was besieged by the tyrant Arthur with an immense host on account of his wife Guinevere, who had been ravished and carried off by the aforesaid wicked king. She had been taken to Glastonia for safety; the place was impregnable because of the protection given by reeds, river and marsh. The rebellious king had searched for his queen throughout the course of a year. Finally he heard where she was staying. At once he mustered an army of all Cornubia and Dibnenia; war between the enemies was prepared.

Seeing this, the Abbot of Glastonia, accompanied by his clergy and Gildas the Wise, walked between the battle lines and peaceably advised King Malvas to restore the queen he had seized. And so, as was right and proper, she was restored in peace and goodwill. After these transactions the two kings bestowed much land on the Abbot. They came to visit the Church of Saint Mary and to pray, and the Abbot confirmed their dear brotherhood for the peace that was made, and the benefits and had been granted and even more for those that would be granted in the future. The kings went away at peace with each other, and promising to obey reverently the venerable Abbot of Glastonia and never to violate that most holy place nor even those places that lie near it.

Gildas settles in Street

The most religious Gildas, gaining permission from the Abbot, clergy and people of Glastonia, desired once again to take up the life of a hermit by the river bank close to Glastonia. He was able to carry out his wish. He built there a church in honour of the Holy and Undivided Trinity, in which he fasted and prayed unceasingly, dressed in goatskin, giving a blameless example of good living and religion. Holy men from distant parts of Britain came to visit him, a man who deserved such visits. He gave them counsel, and as they returned home they would recall his encouragement and advice with exultation.

The death of Gildas

In the end he fell ill. His illness grew worse, and he called the Abbot of Glastonia to him. He begged him, with much piety, that when he had ended his life's course his body should be taken to Glastonia Abbey, which he loved dearly. The Abbot gave his word. Gildas asked worthy men to carry out his wishes. While the Abbot grieved and wept copiously because of what he had heard, the most holy Gildas, very ill, died. Many people witnessed the fragrant angelic splendour around the body, the angels forming an escort for his soul. After a tearful commendation had been made, the frail body was carried by fellow monks to the abbey, and with great grief and due honour was buried in the middle of the pavement of St Mary's church. His soul went to its rest, and rests now. It will rest eternally in heavenly rest. Amen.

Note: Ynisgutrin was the ancient name of Glastonia, and that is how it is still known by native Britons. Ynis in the British language means island. Gutrin means glass. But after the arrival of the Angles and the expulsion of the Britons (i.e. the Welsh), the name Glastonbury was substituted for the original: glas = glass. beria=city. Glastiberia=City of Glass.

The St Gildas window in Street Parish Church