Home  »  Volume I: January  »  St. Gildas the Wise, or Badonicus, Abbot, Native of England

Rev. Alban Butler (1711–73). Volume I: January. The Lives of the Saints. 1866.

January 29

St. Gildas the Wise, or Badonicus, Abbot, Native of England

HE was son to a British Lord, who, to procure him a virtuous education, placed him in his infancy in the monastery of St. Iltutus in Glamorganshire. The surname of Badonicus was given him, because, as we learn from his writings, he was born in the year in which the Britons under Aurelius Ambrosius, or, according to others, under king Arthur, gained the famous victory over the Saxons at Mount Badon, now Bannesdown, near Bath in Somersetshire. This Bede places in the forty-fourth year after the first coming of the Saxons into Britain, which was in 451. Our saint therefore seems to have been born in 494; he was consequently younger than St. Paul, St. Samson, and his other illustrious school-fellows in Wales: but by his prudence and seriousness in his youth he seemed to have attained to the maturity of judgment and gravity of an advanced age. The author of the life of St. Paul of Leon calls him the brightest genius of the school of St. Iltut. His application to sacred studies was uninterrupted, and if he arrived not at greater perfection in polite literature, this was owing to the want of masters of that branch in the confusion of those times. As to improve himself in the knowledge of God and himself was the end of all his studies, and all his reading was reduced to the study of the science of the saints, the greater progress he made in learning, the more perfect he became in all virtues. Studies which are to many a source of dissipation, made him more and more recollected, because in all books he found and relished only God whom alone he sought. Hence sprang that love for holy solitude which, to his death, was the constant ruling inclination of his heart. Some time after his monastic profession, with the consent, and perhaps by the order of his abbot, St. Iltut, he passed over into Ireland, there to receive the lessons of the admirable masters of a religious life, who had been instructed in the most sublime maxims of an interior life, and formed to the practice of perfect virtue by the great St. Patrick. The author of his Acts compares this excursion, which he made in the spring of his life, to that of the bees in the season of flowers, to gather the juices which they convert into honey. In like manner St. Gildas learned from the instructions and examples of the most eminent servants of God to copy in his own life whatever seemed most perfect. So severe were his continual fasts, that the motto of St. John the Baptist might in some degree be applied to him, that he scarcely seemed to eat or drink at all. A rough hair-cloth, concealed under a coarse cloak, was his garment, and the bare floor his bed, with a stone for his bolster. By the constant mortification of his natural appetites, and crucifixion of his flesh, his life was a prolongation of his martyrdom, or a perpetual sacrifice which he made of himself to God in union with that which he daily offered to him on his altars. If it be true that he preached in Ireland in the reign of king Ammeric, he must have made a visit to that island from Armorica, that prince only beginning to reign in 560: this cannot be ascribed to St. Gildas the Albanian, who died before that time. It was about the year 527, in the thirty-fourth of his age, that St. Gildas sailed to Armorica or Brittany in France: 1 for he wrote his invective ten years after his arrival there, and in the forty-fourth year of his age, as is gathered from his life and writings. Here he chose for the place of his retirement the little isle of Houac, or Houat, between the coast of Rhuis and the island of Bellisle, four leagues from the latter. Houat exceeds not a league in length; the isle of Hoedre is still smaller, not far distant; both are so barren as to yield nothing but a small quantity of corn. Such a solitude, which appeared hideous to others, offered the greatest charms to the saint, who desired to fly, as much as this mortal state would permit, whatever could interrupt his commerce with God. Here he often wanted the common necessaries and conveniencies of life; but the greater the privation of earthly comforts was in which he lived, the more abundant were those of the Holy Ghost which he enjoyed, in proportion as the purity of his affections and his love of heavenly things were more perfect. The saint promised himself that he should live here always unknown to men; but it was in vain for him to endeavour to hide the light of divine grace under a bushel, which shone forth to the world, notwithstanding all the precautions which his humility took to conceal it. Certain fishermen who discovered him were charmed with his heavenly deportment and conversation, and made known on the continent the treasure they had found. The inhabitants flocked from the coast to hear the lessons of divine wisdom which, the holy anchoret gave with an heavenly unction which penetrated their hearts. To satisfy their importunities St. Gildas at length consented to live amongst them on the continent and built a monastery at Rhuis, in a peninsula of that name, which Guerech the first lord of the Britons about Vannes is said to have bestowed upon him. This monastery was soon filled with excellent disciples and holy monks. St. Gildas settled them in good order; then, sighing after closer solitude, he withdrew, and passing beyond the gulf of Vannes, and the promontory of Quiberon, chose for his habitation a grot in a rock, upon the bank of the river Blavet, where he found a cavern formed by nature extended from the east to the west, which on that account he converted into a chapel. However, he often visited this abbey of Rhuis, and by his counsels directed many in the paths of true virtue. Among these was St. Trifina, daughter of Guerech, first British count of Vannes. She was married to count Conomor, lieutenant of king Childebert, a brutish and impious man, who afterwards murdered her, and the young son which he had by her, who at his baptism received the name of Gildas, and was god-son to our saint: but he is usually known by the surname of Treuchmeur, or Tremeur, in Latin Trichmorus. SS. Trifina and Treuchmeur are invoked in the English Litany in the seventh century, in Mabillon. The great collegiate church of Carhaix bears the name of St. Treuchmeur: the church of Quimper keeps his feast on the 8th of November, on which day he is commemorated in several churches in Brittany, and at St. Magloire’s at Paris. A church situated between Corlai and the abbey of Cœtmaloen in Brittany is dedicated to God under the invocation of St. Trifina. 2  1
  St. Gildas wrote eight canons of discipline, and a severe invective against the crimes of the Britons, called De Excidio Britanniæ, that he might confound those whom he was not able to convert, and whom God in punishment delivered first to the plunders of the Picts and Scots, and afterwards to the perfidious Saxons, the fiercest of all nations. He reproaches their kings, Constantine, (king of the Danmonians, in Devonshire and Cornwall,) Vortipor, (of the Dimetians, in South Wales,) Conon, Cuneglas, and Magloeune, princes in other parts of Britain, with horrible crimes: but Constantine was soon after sincerely converted, as Gale informs us from an ancient Welch chronicle. 3 According to John Fordun 4 he resigned his crown, became a monk, preached the faith to the Scots and Picts, and died a martyr in Kintyre: but the apostle of the Scots seems to have been a little more ancient than the former. 5 Our saint also wrote an invective against the British clergy, whom he accuses of sloth, of seldom sacrificing at the altar, &c. In his retirement he ceased not with tears to recommend to God his own cause, or that of his honour and glory, and the souls of blind sinners, and died in his beloved solitude in the island of Horac, (in Latin Horata,) according to Usher, in 570, but according to Ralph of Disse, in 581. 6 St. Gildas is a patron of the city of Vannes. The abbey which bears his name in the peninsula of Rhuis, between three and four leagues from Vannes, is of the reformed congregation of St. Maur since the year 1649. The relics of St. Gildas were carried thence for fear of the Normans into Berry, about the year 919, and an abbey was erected there on the banks of the river Indre, which was secularized and united to the collegiate church of Chateauroux in 1623. St. Gildas is commemorated in the Roman Martyrology on the 29th of January. A second commemoration of him is made in some places on the 11th of May, on account of the translation of his relics. His life, compiled from the ancient archives of Rhuis by a monk of that house, in the eleventh century, is the best account we have of him, though the author confounds him sometimes with St. Gildas the Albanian. It is published in the library of Fleury, in Bollandus, p. 954, and most correctly in Mabillon, Act. SS. Ord. St. Bened. t. 1. p. 138. See also Dom Lobineau, Vies des Saints de Bretagne, (fol. an. 1725.) p. 72. and Hist. de la Bretagne, (2 vol. fol. an. 1707.) and the most accurate Dom Morice, Mémoires sur l’Histoire de Bretagne, 3 vol. fol. in 1745, and Hist. de la Bretagne, 2 vol. fol. an. 1750.  2
Note 1. Armorica, which word in the old Celtic language signified a maritime country, comprised that part of Celtic Gaul which is now divided into Brittany, Lower Normandy, Anjou, Maine, and Touraine. Tours was the capital, and still maintains the Metropolitan dignity. By St. Gatian about the middle of the third century, the faith was first planted in those parts: but the entire extirpation of idolatry was reserved to the zeal of British monks. Dom Morice distinguishes three principal transmigrations of inhabitants from Great Britain into Armorica: the first, when many fled from the arms of Carausius and Allectus, who successively assumed the purple in Great Britain: Constance made these fugitives welcome in Gaul and allowed them to settle on the coast of Armorica about the year 293. A second and much larger colony of Britons was planted here under Conan, a British prince, by Maximus, whom all the British youth followed into Gaul in 383. After the defeat of Maximus, these Armorican Britons chose this Conan, surnamed Meriedec, king, formed themselves into an independent state, and maintained their liberty against several Roman generals in the decline of that empire, and against the Alans, Vandals, Goths, and other Barbarians. Des Fontaines, (Diss. p. 118.) and after him Dom Morice, demonstrates that Brittany was an independent state before the year 421. The third transmigration of Britons hither was completed at several intervals whilst the Saxons invaded and conquered Britain, where Hengist first landed in 470. Brittany was subjected to the Romans during four centuries: an independent state successively under the title of a kingdom, county, and dutchy, for the space of about eleven hundred and fifty years, and has been united to the kingdom of France ever since the year 1532, by virtue of the marriage of king Charles VIII. with Anne, sole heiress of Brittany, daughter of duke Francis, celebrated in 1491. This province was subdued by Clovis I. who seems to have treacherously slain Budic, king of Brittany. This prince left six sons, Howel I., Ismael, bishop of Menevia, St. Tifei, honoured as a martyr at Pennalun, St. Oudecee, bishop of Landaff, Urbian or Concar, and Dinot, father of St. Kineda. Brittany remained subject to the sons of Clovis, and it was by the authority of Childebert that St. Paul was made bishop of Leon in 512. But Howel, returning from the court of king Arthur in 513, recovered the greater part of these dominions. See Dom Morice, Hist. t. 1. p. 14. Howel I. often called Rioval, that is, king Howel, was a valiant prince, and liberal to churches and monasteries. Among many sons whom he left behind him, Howel II. succeeded him, and two are honoured among the saints, viz. St. Leonor or Lunaire, and St. Tudgual or Pabutual, first bishop of Treguier. See Morice, t. 1. p. 14, and 729. Howel III. alias Juthael, recovered all Brittany. King Pepin again conquered this country, and Charlemagne and Lewis le Debonnaire quelled it when it thrice rebelled. The latter established the Benedictin rule at Landevenec, which probably was soon imitated in others: for the monastic rule which first prevailed here was that of the Britons in Wales, borrowed from the Orientals. After the struggles made by this province for its liberty, Charles the Bald yielded it up in 858, and some time after treated Solomon III. as king of Brittany. See Morice, Des Fontaines, &c. [back]
Note 2. In this church-yard stands an ancient pyramid, on which are engraved letters of an unknown alphabet, supposed to be that of the Britons and Gauls before the Roman alphabet was introduced among them. Letters of the same alphabet are found upon some other monuments of Brittany. See Lobineau, Vies des Saints de la Bretagne, in St. Treuchmeur, p. 8. Dom Morice endeavours to prove that the Welsh, the old British, and the Celtic are the same language. (Hist t. 1. p. 867.) That they are so in part it unquestionable. [back]
Note 3. Mr. Vaughan, in his British Antiquities revived, printed at Oxford in 1662, shows that there were at this time many princes or chieftains among the Britons in North Wales, but that they all held their lands of one sovereign, though each in his own district was often honoured with the title of king. The chief prince at this time was Maelgun Gwynedth, the lineal heir and eldest descendant of Euneda, who flourished in the end of the fourth, or beginning of the fifth century and from one or other of whose eight sons all the princes of North Wales, also those of Cardigan, Dimetia, Glamorgan, and others in South Wales, derived their descent. The ancient author, published at the end of Nennius, says Maelgun, began his reign one hundred and forty-six years after Cunedha, who was his Atavus, or great grandfather’s grandfather. Maelgun was prince only of Venedotia for twenty-five years before he was acknowledged in 564, after the death of Arthur, chief king of the Britons in Wales, whilst St. David was primate, Arthur king of the Britons in general, Gurthmyll king, and St. Kentigern bishop of the Cumbrian Britons. “He had received a good education under the elegant instructor of almost all Britain,” says Gildas, pointing out probably St. Iltutus. Yet he fell into enormous vices. Touched with remorse, he retired into a monastery in 552; but being soon tired of that state, re-assumed his crown, and relapsed into his former impieties. He died in 565. Gildas, who wrote his epistle De Excidio Britanniæ, between the years 564 and 570, that of his death, hints that Verulam was then fallen into the hands of the Saxons: which is certain of London, &c. The other princes reprehended by Gildas were lesser toparchs, as Aurelius Conon, Vortipor, Cuneglas, and Constantine. These were chieftains, Vortopor in Pembrokeshire, the rest in some quarter or other of Britain, all living when Gildas wrote. Constantine, whom Gildas represents as a native of Cornwall, and as he is commonly understood also as prince of that country, did penance. The chief crime imputed to him is the murder of two royal youths in a church, and of two noblemen who had the charge of their education. These Carte imagines to have been the sons of Caradoo Ureich-Uras, who was chief prince of the Cornish Britons in the latter end of king Arthur’s reign, as is attested by the author of the Triades. The prelates whom Gildas reproves, were such as Maelgun had promoted: for the sees of South Wales were at that time filled with excellent prelates, whose virtues Gildas desired to copy. Carte, t. 1. p. 214. [back]
Note 4. Scoti-chron. c. 26. [back]
Note 5. Gildas’s epistle De Excidio Britanniæ, was published extremely incorrect and incomplete, till the learned Thomas Gale gave us a far more accurate and complete edition, t. 3. Scriptor. Britan., which is reprinted with notes by Bertrame in Germany, Hanniæ imp. an. 1757, together with Nennius’s history of the Britons, and Richard Corin. of Westminster, De Situ Britanniæ. Gildas’s Castigatio Cleri is extant in the library of the Fathers, ed. Colon. t. 5. part 3. p. 682. [back]
Note 6. Dom Morice shows that about one hundred and twenty years were an ordinary term of human life among the ancient Britons, and that their usual liquor called Kwrw, made of barley and water, was a kind of beer, a drink most suitable to the climate and constitutions of the inhabitants. See Dom Morice, Mémoires sur l’Histoire de Bretagne, t. 1. preface; and Lemery, Diss. sur les Boissons. [back]