Gildas the Wise is the most ancient British writer, working in Latin from Brittany about turn of the century 500 AD. Many had then fled Britain for security with relatives across the channel. After a brief history of Britain, Gildas addresses five rulers among the British, just as if this were the time of the beginning of the reign of Arthur, when still a prince, a teenage nephew of Aurelianus Ambrosius. The following is an excerpt from the blog “Arthur, Guinevere and the Ancient British:”
…Megalocune is addressed as nephew to the king, heaping upon his “kingly shoulders” a load of sins. But upon examination, the last addressed is Christian, and may well be Arthur or Uther Pendragon. Two points from Gerald of Wales make this seem an un-excluded possibility (is it yet included?): the great size of the bones of Arthur and the inscription saying that Guinevere was his “second wife.” Gildas may speak as Churchmen do who judge by convention, and identify, for example, conventional marriage with true marriage and artificial piety with natural virtue. For it seems this Megalocune is given to hearing bards tell flattering tales in song, “rung out after the fashion of the giddy rout of Bacchus by the mouths of thy villainous followers…vessel…This Megalocune is said to have married his nephew’s wife, and for this is accused of two murders, of each, though Gildas may simply mean the murder of their souls in convention, if the first marriages were conventional and the second based on true love. Finally, Gildas writes:
And, the just king (according to the prophet) raiseth up his region. But warnings truly are not wanting to thee, since thou had for thy instructor the most eloquent master of almost all Britain. Take heed, therefore, lest that which Solomon noteth, befall thee, which is, “Even as he who stireth a sleeping man out of his heavy sleep, so is that person who declareth wisdom unto a fool, for in the end of his speech will he say, What hadst thou first spoken?
Gildas speaks to this one as the present king, and says enough that it can be known he is a Christian king. He says says nothing inconsistent with this one being the Arthur known not to the poets that come later, but to history, addressed so as to remain within propriety, and early enough in his career, say, 516-524, to cohere with the other things written previously pertaining to the time of peace with the Saxons but civil turmoil following the death of Ambrosius Aurelianus and the first battle of Badon in 493. The revellings sound quite like a liberally educated prince having fun and living a normal life of the liberal arts from the view of an austere Churchman, who, however, may be more correct than wrong in his warning to Arthur. The “most eloquent master of almost all of Britain” may be Gildas himself, or Merlin Ambrosius, someone likely to be famed rather than forgotten completely.
Concluding the first section, Gildas says that he does not wish to declare the concealed vices of his countrymen to the wider world so much as to “bewail the wickedness of those who have become servants not only to their bellies, but also to the devil rather than to Christ…” In the second section, he then writes first against 5 warlords who ruled after Aurelianus Ambrosius, that is, after 449+44=493 AD. And then against the churchmen of Britain, going through the old and new testaments while railing at them in tones again similar to Luther. This, a time of great corruption due to the luxury following the victory of Ambrosius, is the circumstance into which the real Arthur is born, about 501 AD. If Megalocune” is not Arthur- and I do think he is-, then Gildas, or the part of his writing we have preserved, just barely missed the event of Arthur, though Nennius lists the death date of Gildas as 570. He wrote at least the first 26 paragraphs in a time of peace, when Ambrosius was the last victorious British general. There seems little reason to hypothesize the identification of Arthur with Ambrosius, the brother of Uther, nor, to say the least, with Riothamus, though the work of Ashe is impressive and quite helpful in seeing into the period. Those histories would have been preserved, or at least writers would write in a way that cohered with other things known, such as the time and effect of the Saxon invasion, and its geography, pushing the Roman Britons gradually West, from St. Martins and London (Lud-don, or Lud’s city, also called Trinovantium, or “New Troy”) to the area of Westminster and Silchester, near Arthur’s Camelot, and finally to Glastonbury-Avalon and North into what is now Wales, toward Snowdon, and even into Scotland where some of my own MacDomnwald ancestors became “Lords of the Isles.”
Nennius lists 10 battles of Arthur from which the fortunes of the British in the war and the movements of the border between the Saxons and Britons might be followed, in some detail, if the locations can be identified. Vortimer, the son of Vortigern, had besieged the Saxons on the isle of Thanet, having pushed them off the mainland after the death of Vortigern:
The first was at the mouth of the river called Glein. The second, third, fourth and fifth were on another river, called the Douglas, which is in the country of Lindsey. The sixth battle was on the river called Bassas. The seventh was in celyddon Forest, that is the battle of Celyddon Coed. The eighth battle was in Guinnon fort, and in it Arthur carried the image of the holy Mary, the everlasting Virgin, on [his shield,]…The ninth battle was fought in the city of Legion. The tenth battle battle was fought on the bank of the river called Tryfrwyd. The eleventh battle was on the hill called Agned. The twelfth battle was on Badon hill, and in it 960 men fell from a single charge of Arthur’s…
Badon is Bath hill. Obviously, there were two battles at this strategic place, and no reason to confuse Arthur and Aurelius Ambrosius. Geoffreys account of the battles (ix.i) at Douglass and York occurs early in the career of Arthur. The monk whom Gildas calls almost the most eloquent may be Dubricius, Archbishop of the city of Legions. This Dubricious, in Geoffrey, addresses Arthur and his troops:
Whoever suffers death for the sake of his brothers offers himself as a living sacrifice to God and follows with firm footsteps behind Christ himself, who did not disdain to lay down his life for his brothers…
Dubricius is thinking of the passage in John, (15:13) “Greater love has no man than that he lay down his life for his friends…” Death in war as penance and absolution is a slightly different if related idea. We say that our police do this “every time they punch the clock,” as do our citizens accidentally shot.
Geoffrey simply fills in certain blank places in the account of Gildas and Nennius (or perhaps some other similar to Nennius). For example, no parents of Aurelianus Ambrosius are mentioned, but Geoffrey makes these directly descended from one of the house of Constantine. Geoffrey writes of a monk Constans, of the house of Constantine, an elder brother of Ambrosius and Uther who who would have been king but had entered the monastery. Vortigern is said to have brought him out, made him king, and then usurped his kingship, as Constans not only lacked the proper character, but “what he learned in the cloister had nothing to do with how to rule a kingdom.” That is, unlike Robert the Earl of Gloucester of Geofferey’s Dedicatory Letter, in the introduction, Constans did not pursue in the monastery the liberal arts and philosophy together with the martial arts, the pursuits of philosophy and kingship, or the pursuits of the philosopher-kings. This Robert is an illegitimate son of Henry I, the very king who dug up the grave of Arthur and Guinevere at Avalon or Glastonbury, only to see the hair of Guinevere turn to dust).