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-
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.
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-
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
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
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
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.