Where Did Gildas Write?

21 Sep

Those eagle-eyed amongst you will have noticed that are old county maps of Britain.

Apologies for any typos, but I did this in somewhat of a hurry. I will try to correct in the coming days.

There have been many theories as to where the 6th century cleric/deacon, and later saint, Gildas wrote his polemic against five of the British kings at the time in the De Excidio Britanniae (DEB). Most favour the Somerset/Dorset area, based on the fact Gildas seems to be berating kings of what was (or still was in his day) the province of Britannia Prima. However, there is one scholar who disagrees: E.A. Thompson.

Thompson, in a paper from 1978 (available at JSTOR), reads the evidence as Gildas writing somewhere north of Britannia Prima, or, possibly, Chester. (Chester was most likely in this province, but we’ll come back to that). His reasoning is based on a pretty good argument.

His thinking behind why Gildas may have been in the north is because, when discussing the section about the Scotti and Picti raids and the ‘Saxon’ deployment answer to this, it is all about the north. He doesn’t discuss the south at all with regards to Germanic feoderati.

Gildas tells us that the raids happen thusly …

No sooner were they [the Romans] gone, than the Picts and Scots, like worms which in the heat of mid-day come forth from their holes, hastily land again from their canoes, in which they had been carried beyond the Cichican valley, differing one from another in manners, but inspired with the same avidity for blood, and all more eager to shroud their villainous faces in bushy hair than to cover with decent clothing those parts of their body which required it. Moreover, having heard of the departure of our friends, and their resolution never to return, they seized with greater boldness than before on all the country towards the extreme north as far as the wall. To oppose them there was placed on the heights a garrison equally slow to fight and ill adapted to run away, a useless and panic-struck company, who clambered away days and nights on their unprofitable watch. Meanwhile the hooked weapons of their enemies were not idle, and our wretched countrymen were dragged from the wall and dashed against the ground. Such premature death, however, painful as it was, saved them from seeing the miserable sufferings of their brothers and children. But why should I say more? they left their cities, abandoned the protection of the wall and dispersed themselves in flight more desperately than before. The enemy, on the other hand, pursued them with more unrelenting cruelty than before, and butchered our countrymen like sheep, so that their habitations were like those of savage beasts; for they turned their arms upon each other, and for the sake of a little sustenance, imbrued their hands in the blood of their fellow countrymen. Thus foreign calamities were augmented by domestic feuds; so that the whole country was entirely destitute of provisions, save such as could be procured in the chase. (DEB, 19)

Thompson goes on to argue …

According to him [Gildas], in the years preceding 446, the date of Aetius’s third consulship, the Picts and Scots, coming by sea (as he repeatedly emphasizes) seized northern Britain as far as the Wall. We do not know what exactly he means by ‘northern’ Britain; but since he describes the area as ‘all the northern and extreme part of the land as far as the wall’, omnem aquilonalem extremamque terrae partem . . . muro tenus, we can hardly be wrong in supposing that the area which he has in mind is some or all of that part of Britain which lies north of the Mersey and the Humber. The words, which are emphatic, would be wholly unsuited to describe the Midlands or Wales or East Anglia or any region that included any of these. As a description of Kent, of course, they would be ludicrous. On the other hand, the words cannot mean Scotland north of the Wall: the activities which Gildas goes on to describe undoubtedly took place within the old British diocese, and indeed he is unlikely to have cared what went on north of the Wall. He is not speaking here, then, about Britain as a whole. The events which he is narrating took place in the north only: the Picts and Scots came down by sea, landed on the east and west coasts of this region, and ravaged northwards as far as the Wall. It is impossible to overemphasize the importance of this fact: Gildas is speaking of the very north of Roman Britain.

(I’m not going to get into the argued dates of the Adventus Saxonum (Saxon Advent) here as that’s a whole other kettle of fish!)

Gildas then tells us how the ‘Proud Tyrant’ (thought to be Vortigern but other forward Constantine III) responded by using *‘Saxon’ feoderati against them, basing them in the ‘east of the island’. Meaning, according to Thompson, in the northeast, where the raids were happening, and not the southeast. (This could have been east and/or southeast Yorkshire and East Anglia – more below). It would certainly make more sense than the Isle of Thanet, which is where they are traditionally placed. Not that they weren’t there, but that this may have been a different group, possibly at a different (earlier?) time. Something was obviously going on in the south as the Gallic Chronicles (as well as the archaeology) tell us so. Here’s Thompson response to that:

We also have some information from a south Gallic chronicler, who may have been writing at Marseilles and who was certainly an exact contemporary of the events in question. The Chronicler of A.D. 452 tells us that the British provinces, which had hitherto suffered a variety of calamities, were ‘reduced to subjection by the ‘Saxons’ about the years 441-2. The statement is an exaggeration, but we cannot dismiss it out of hand. A Gallic chronicler is more likely to have been in touch with southern Britain than with the Midlands or with the North. We have convincing evidence, then, that in 441-2 the Saxons inflicted a catastrophic blow on parts of Britain – in all probability, the southern parts of Britain. And these events were so disastrous that news of them had even reached southern Gaul and were thought there to be so significant as to deserve an entry in a very brief chronicle. The report had (falsely) convinced men there that the Britons had succumbed permanently to the invaders. Even as late as 452 the effects of this disaster were still felt – or at any rate, the news of any British recovery had not yet reached southern Gaul. Now, a very few years later a synod of British bishops (as it seems) was able to meet and to invite Germanus of Auxerre to pay his second visit to Britain; and Germanus was  able to travel to the island and complete his business there without ever clapping an eye upon a Saxon. He must have come to a more westerly region than he had reached in his first visit in 429, when he saw plenty of Saxons. But in spite of this we cannot write off the Chronicler’s words. It is his sole reference to the Britain of his own day, so that the event must have seemed to him to be of exceptional importance and interest. Let us suppose that the Saxon successes to which he refers took place in the south-east of the island: we can then account for Gildas’s silence about them, for, as we have seen, he is concerned with the north of Britain, and we can also account for Germanus’s freedom to travel, for his second visit (as we may guess) took him further to the west than the danger area.

There are those who argue that we cannot trust the Gallic Chronicles before 450 (Miller) but I would offer that it also could have been British migrants to Gaul who passed and spread this (dis)information.

Gildas’s knowledge of the first half of the 5th century is shaky, so it’s not surprising it is confused, but it appears that two different things were happening and either Gildas got his information wrong, the dates are wrong or the appeal was because the ‘Saxons’ of the south were a problem before the (reoccurring) northern problem and the appeal was about both; that is, Picts and Scots in the north and ‘Saxons’ south of the River Humber.

When the ‘Saxons’ (of the north?) rebelled, because they weren’t paid enough, they ravaged from sea to sea, according to Gildas. Thompson argues that Gildas is not referring to from the English Channel to the Bristol Channel, but the North Sea to the Irish Sea, before possibly turning their attention south.  Of course, this doesn’t mean that there wasn’t a rebellion in the south, but that Gildas is only referring to what he knows more about: north of the Mersey/Humber line; that is, what was (or still was) Britannia Secunda/Valentia. It’s a very valid point that Gildas makes no mention of the southeast or south if he was writing from the southwest and very near ‘Anglo-Saxon’ cultural and military expansion.

Another reason Thompson gives is one of personal safety! Would Gildas say such things against these kings unless he was at a safe distance from them, especially from Constantine of Dumnonia who may have been closest to him if he wrote in the southwest and one of the most violent? It’s a valid point, although Gildas may have thought God was on his side in the matter, or his whereabouts was unknown. It also may be that, whichever kingdom/civitas Gildas was writing in, Constantine didn’t dare do anything against it. However, Thompson then puts forward Chester as a possible place Gildas wrote. A strange choice as it was not far from two other kings he chastised:  Cuneglasus and Maglocunus! For Thompson’s argument to be consistent, Gildas would have to be somewhere further away, I would have thought.

What does the archaeology say about ‘Saxons’ in the British held north for the Late 5th century? Well, very little actually, but there are Germanic finds associated with some Roman forts (Dark, 2003) as well as the major settlements in what was the Parisi region and what would become Deira (southeast Yorkshire) and later part of Northumbria. Professor Ken Dark also wonders if the Roman forts on the Wall that continued into the 6th century were not the result continuous occupation as such, but rebuilt and manned during the fight back against the Scotti, Picti and, later, Saxon rebels, in the mid 5th century.

The fact that there are so few ‘Saxon’ finds in the region could be seen as their expulsion, or containment, being successful. This make sense if they didn’t have the same foothold or hadn’t been in the north for as long as those in the south.

I never considered Gildas being from the north because of his dating of the building of Hadrian’s and the Antonine walls, which he thought happened in the late 4th century. Thompson has a good answer to this:

Gildas advances his theory on the building of the walls for an obvious reason: no self respecting historian of Roman Britain could possibly have left the two most striking monuments of the Roman occupation unaccounted for. Of the entire passage we can only accept those words spoken by the Romans to the Britons pointing out that they could send no more legions to the island: from now on the Britons must look to their own defence. If we had no further evidence we would reject this passage, too, along with the account of the two Roman expeditions which resulted in the building of the walls. We would regard it as part of the same story or theory. But in fact we have other evidence; and this further evidence throws a very different light on the passage. Gildas has heard in some way of Honorius’s famous letter of 410 to the British civitates bidding them defend themselves. So while we dismiss the aetiological stories of how the walls came to be built we must retain this chapter, which contains some sound historical information. The contents of Honorius’s letter are a matter which Gildas could not possibly have invented, and he could not possibly have got the incident right by coincidence. A genuine tradition has reached him here.

(It should be noted here that some scholars now think the the Honorius rescript was not addressed to the Britons at all, but to the Italian cities of the province of Bruttium. However, the jury is still out as Zosimus, who is the source of the information, is talking about Britain just before this is mentioned. Of course, he himself could have got the information wrong).

There is another (tentative) possibility, and one that would still put Gildas in the southwest, and that is that Gildas is specific about the north and doesn’t dwell on the south because he knows his audience are all too aware of what happened there?

There are other ramification to this, of course, and some of these apply whether Gildas wrote in the north or not. For example: was the Proud Tyrant from the north, or did he just have primacy over it? was Ambrosius Aurelianus from this region? did the battle of Badon happen in the north and not, as most assume, in the southwest? and when Gildas talked of peace, was his view of the whole of the diocese of Britannia influenced by a greater peace in the north, whilst it may not have been so peaceful further south? (But see THIS blog).

It’s very difficult to answer these questions. Later ‘histories’ place both Vortigern and Ambrosius in the south and Wales and not in the north. There might be more of a case for the Proud Tyrant – whoever he was – as he’s the one who brought in the ‘Saxons’ to deal with the northern problem. But if their arrival happened in the south before this, then either Vortigern had primacy over the north, he supplied ‘Saxons’ to the north, or this was not done by Vortigern at all and the stories of the north and south were combined.

Ambrosius could have been dealing with ‘Saxons’ anywhere, but the Historia Britonnum gives him a battle at Wallop in the south, unless he was, indeed, a far ranging dux. As for Badon, Thomas Green has put forward a possible ‘northern’ Badon at Baumber (called Badeburg in the Doomsday Book) in Lincolnshire. As for Gildas’s views on the ‘peace’, writing in the north could have clouded his idea of peace in other regions.


My own conclusions are that there is a good argument for considering that Gildas wrote in the north, but I’m not totally convinced. In Chapter 3 of the DEB, for example, his description of the ‘transparent rivers, flowing in gentle murmurs’ of Britain might place him in Hampshire, but he could have just been reiterating something he’d heard, just as he’d learned about the geography of Britain in general. However, writing in the north does make some sense of him not mentioning the ‘Saxons’ of the south, except, perhaps, obtusely through Ambrosius?

I shall continue to think on’t and look forward to your thoughts and comments. (There are some very interesting comments below).

Thanks for reading,


* I have used ‘Saxon’ in inverted commas as this was a generic term for several Germanic groups as well as the Saxons themselves.

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13 responses to “Where Did Gildas Write?

  1. Jonathan Jarrett

    September 27, 2011 at 8:35 pm

    I’ve seen far less clear run-throughs of this problem by experts, Mak, nice work. I don’t have any big critique to offer, other than it’s usually seemed to me that it would have been senseless to put troops intended to defend against the Picts anywhere other than fairly far north, and that as Barbara Yorke (I think) pointed out the Kentish royal family were the Oiscings, so there’s a range of reasons to suppose that Hengist and Horsa got relocated southwards by later traditions. There are three little points I want to float towards you, though: Firstly, and most mischeviously, most later traditions have Gildas finishing up in Brittany–I’m not sure there’s anything in the text of De Excidio that makes it certain he couldn’t already have been there as he wrote, which might explain some of his misinformation and would also give him free choice of royal targets. That doesn’t tell us where he might have come from of course! Though the same sort of later Breton texts say he was raised on the Clyde. Secondly, as regards the letter from Honorius, it is always worth remembering that Bede knew this, and read it as referring to Britain. Some of his material had of course come from Rome, but if it was sent to him from there, that means his Roman contacts also thought it referred to Britain; and if it came from somewhere in Britain, that would also weigh fairly heavily in that direction! I would be more convinced by the Bruttium argument if it could explain the early usage of this document in this context, in short.

    Lastly, and most sadly, when you say:

    there is one scholar who disagrees

    I’m afraid there was; Professor Thompson died in 1994.

    • badonicus

      October 1, 2011 at 8:22 am

      Many thanks for the compliment Jonathan.

      I’d thought about the Brittany possibility and it seems as good a suggestion as any. I wonder about his Clyde origins though as he seems so Brittanian, as opposed to just been a Briton. Could be wrong of course.

      Good points on the Brittium issue.


  2. thenewbede

    September 28, 2011 at 9:55 pm

    Very enlightening article, and in some aspects, quite convincing. I don’t know if you’ve read either of Mike Ashley’s books on King Arthur (one is simply an abridged version of the other), but when discussing Nennius and the Saxon Advent, he argues that Vortigern had Hengist and his followers settle not on Thanet in Kent, but at Beacon Hill (near Barton-Upon-Humber) in Lincolnshire. Thanet, as Ashley points out, comes from the Celtic “tanat”, or beacon ( He also makes vague reference to early Saxon settlements. While I’d like to see more archaeological evidence for this, it would make more sense for the germanic foederati to set up camp here rather than in Kent, and it ties in nicely with Thomas Green’s article. Ashley later goes on to locate Vortimer’s battles against Hengist in five surprisingly logical locations around the mouth of the Humber( suggests to me that the influence of the southern British kings, at least the most powerful ones, possibly reached as far as southeast Yorkshire.

    On the other hand, I don’t really accept Green’s location of Badon at Baumber ( While it makes sense etymologically, logistically I feel it’s too far from the probable British/Saxon boundary established by the archaeological evidence, which can be seen in the maps in your previous posts. Despite what most of the current books say, what I’ve read of Hirst and Rahtz’s excavation at Liddington/Badbury suggests that there was some post-Roman occupation, just not re-fortification. It also makes more logistic and strategic sense, which is the factor that makes Liddington stand out, rather than the currently inconclusive etymology of its Old English name. But that’s just me.

    As for Ambrosius, the evidence I’ve found suggests that he was most likely based in Britannia Prima, while his family was probably originally based in Maxima Caesariensis. I plan to elaborate on this in the blog I’m starting. IF the authority of some southern rulers extended as far north as Yorkshire, however, Ambrosius would have probably needed a war leader, possibly a trusted lieutenant or a son, to keep the Saxons hemmed in to the “Linnuis” region. If the Saxon leader at Linnuis possibly transferred his power base to the Germanic holdings in the south, as suggested by Nennius, that northern British commander, likely would have followed him there and taken part in a battle at one of the likely southern locations for Badon.

    Like I said, very enlightening.

    • badonicus

      October 1, 2011 at 8:13 am

      I have read Ashley’s first book but it was a while ago and had forgotten about his suggestion.

      I think I’m with you on the Baumber suggestion, although we can never rule anything out. I’m also probably in favour of a southern Ambrosius.


  3. Makhno

    September 30, 2011 at 9:41 am

    Interesting – although a Northern base wouldn’t necessarily have been safely away from the five kings, if one accepts Fabio Barbieri’s argument that Maelgwn’s real power base was in the North.

    I doubt that distance would have made him safe if he were still in Britain. Either he had some non-geographical reason for thinking the kings couldn’t touch him; or he was writing from overseas; or he just didn’t care.

    • badonicus

      October 1, 2011 at 8:08 am

      I think you’re probably right Marcus. I’d thought about Jonathan’s suggestion of Brittany as a possibility but, then again (and as I said) he may not have cared thinking God on his side … or that he might be martyred!

  4. Ed Watson

    October 9, 2011 at 1:53 pm

    Gildas was very knowledgeable of Maelgwn of Gwynedd, but he is also very critical of him, indeed Gildas reserves his most scathing attack of the five tyrants for him. It therefore seems unlikely that he wrote within striking distance at nearby Chester. In De Excidio et Conquestu Britanniae, Gildas mentions a ‘diuortio barbarorum’, interpreted as meaning that part of Britannia was controlled by barbarians, usually taken to mean Saxons but more correctly people other than Britons. This partition prevents fellow citizens in his own time visiting the shrines of St Alban at Verulamium, Hertfordshire, and Saints Aaron and Iulius at legionum urbs. There are two equally strong candidates for the latter; Caerleon in Gwent, south Wales, or Chester, on the north east Wales border. This is not to say that Verulamium and legionum urbs are occupied by barbarians but territory controlled by them is preventing access to these shrines.

    Gildas provides no indication of the location of the ‘diuortio barbarorum’, however, Verulamium and legionum urbs are across the middle band of the country. Verulamium in the east and very close to Anglo-Saxon settlement, yet access to legionum urbs, Caerleon or Chester in the west, is more difficult to explain. The barbarians are usually assumed to be Saxons but after Badon he makes no further mention of them, suggesting that in his time and place they were perhaps no longer a serious problem.

    Gildas knowledge of the north is evidently not great; he makes errors in dating the Walls and mis-locates the Picts and fails to mention any northern place by name. He does correctly name southern locations and two southern kingdoms, Dyfed and Dumnonia, indeed Gildas’ five tyrants reigned from the geographic region from the south-western peninsula to Anglesey. Ken Dark (Civitas to Kingdom) presents a convincing argument for Gildas having wrote his De Excidio in the West Country.

    The ‘Adventus Saxonum’ does not necessarily have to have been the slash and burn invasion of Gildas’ rhetorical account. The picture appears to have been much more complex with Britons allied with Anglo-Saxons, as the later sudden emergence of Mercia attests, in a patchwork of disunited kingdoms. Indeed, the confines of the Dark Age barrier of Wansdyke may have been the ‘diuortio barbarorum’ which may have effectively prevented travel to Verulamium or legionum urbs due to hostile kingdoms beyond.

    • badonicus

      October 10, 2011 at 6:59 pm

      As you may have seen from my other blogs, the southwestern location of Gildas writing as well as Dark’s analysis of it (and the complexity of the ‘Adventus Saxonum’) is something I favour … Amorica is another option, although he is supposed to have ended his days there. Thompson’s old argument was new to me, hence why I explored it here.

      Thompson’s idea of Gildas writing in Chester if he was scared of Maglocunus and Cuneglasus is just plain crazy, but his argument as to why Gildas didn’t know about the walls’ dates (probably along with many others in Britannia) makes sense to me (and this is something I used to see as a stumbling block). Of course, the one thing I didn’t mention is that in the earlier version of Gildas’s Life – Vita Gildae auctore monacho Ruiensi (c. 11th century) – (written by an un-named monk from Rhuys in Britanny) he is said to be from Arecluta (Clydesdale, Starthclyde), the son of Caw (Caunus). There may be reasons for doubting this, but it’s still a possibility and, if he was from there, then obviously the dating of the two Roman walls wasn’t passed down.

      He must have known Britannia Prima as he studied at Llan Illtud Fawr (Llantwit Major, Glamorgan, South Wales), as well as supposedly being in St Davids. He was also in Ireland (Iren) before going (back) to the Old North (between the Antonine and Hadrian Walls) to preach to the unconverted. Other places he is said to have travelled to are Ravena and Rome before settling at Rhuys in Britanny (Amorica). This Life, which could, of course, be off the mark on a number of things, has no mention of the southwest of England and it’s Caradoc of Llancarfan’s Gildasian Life – Vita Gildae auctore Caradoco Lancarbanensi (c. 12th century) – that mentions the southwest and Glastonbury and it is this part of it that is thought by some to be mere propaganda on the abby’s part and influenced by Geoffrey of Monmouth. It could also be true that he was there, but we may never know. Caradoc gives Gildas’s father as Nau of Scotia.

      Of course, there are some who think there was more than one Gildas: nine at the last count I think.

      There is still the question as to why Gildas doesn’t talk of the ‘Saxons’ of the south and what was happening there and why he concentrates on what was happening in the north in the mid 5th century. If he was writing in the southwest, why isn’t everything before he gets onto the subject of the five kings from a southwestern perspective? Was he from the north and relatively new to the southwest? Possibly, which may give him a more northern bent to do with the past but a southwestern one to do with his present.



  5. David Hillman

    October 21, 2011 at 11:48 pm

    Surely by the Northern and extreme parts up to the wall he must mean Caledonia, not Northumbria. I’ve tried to read Gildas several times this week to try to understand why Thompson thinks otherwise, but this reading just does not make sense to me. By Britannia Gildas always means the whole Island, or islands, not just the province south of the wall. He perhaps thinks the Picts only arrived in Britain after the Romans left, or that they then extended their occupation south to Severus’ wall.
    The problem with Gildas is that you first have to clarify what his words mean, then why he says them, then whether they are actual history.

  6. badonicus

    October 22, 2011 at 9:19 am

    I agree that you have to be careful with what Gildas says and that, a lot of the time, he is referring to Britannia the island(s) and not the diocese, but I think that in the case of “up to the wall” he is referring to Hadrian’s Wall and not the Antonine Wall. Why do I think this? Because it is the old diocese that had brought in the ‘Saxons’ and (unless you believe Valentia was north of Hadrian’s Wall) the diocese, or the northern most province, ended at Hadrian’s Wall, and I would have thought that Gildas must have known this. If Dark et al are right, that northern province still existed in Gildas’s day.

  7. badonicus

    November 10, 2011 at 4:08 pm

    If you want to read a complete rebuttal of Thompson’s theory, see Nick Higham’s ‘The English Conquest – Gildas and Britain in the Fifth Century‘ (p91 onward).


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