Gildas and Bede

Besides trying to find information in the written records that mention Arthur, historians sometimes look to see what information can be gleaned from the contemporary sources which do not mention him. Geoffrey of Monmouth clearly drew on older material when composing his History of the Kings of Britain. Although he cannot be relied on for accurate history by any means, it is sometimes useful to turn to him to see what sources he was using. Geoffrey does, in fact, give us some indication about where he got his information. In the opening dedication of his book, he writes:

"Whenever I have chanced to think about the history of the kings of Britain, on those occasions when I have been turning over a great many such matters in my mind, it has seemed a remarkable thing to me that, apart from such mention of them as Gildas and Bede had each made in a brilliant book on the subject, I have not been able to discover anything at all on the kings who lived here before the Incarnation of Christ, or indeed about Arthur and all the others who followed on after the Incarnation..."
(Geoffrey, pp. 51)

Gildas and Bede were both monks who wrote about the history of Britain during the Saxon invasion and before. Bede lived in the eighth century, and Gildas lived even earlier, our only firsthand witness to the events of the fifth and sixth centuries, in which Arthur would have lived. Both of these men's writings have survived, and historians sometimes turn to them for information about the period. Neither of them mentions Arthur, but it can still be useful to see what light they shed on the period in which he is said to have lived.

The Venerable Bede was a monk, later made into a saint, who lived in the Northumbrian monastery of Saint Peter at Monkwearmouth in the eighth century. The monastery had access to a large library, which included works from a variety authors, and he apparently used this to draw on when composing his work. Historians consider him relatively reliable when compared with other sources from his time. Sometime about 731, he composed his Ecclesiastical History of the English People.

In Bede, we find again the story of Vortigern, and of his bringing in the Saxons to fight as mercenaries. In Bede's version, the Saxons intended to betray the Britons and join forces with the Picts all along. This kind of one–sided patriotism is not uncommon in writings from the period. Bede also mentions Constantine, who would become Arthur's grandfather in Geoffrey.

Most of Bede's work pertaining to the fifth and sixth centuries seems to have been taken from Gildas. But Bede fills in many names, which Gildas conspicuously omits, and this may indicate that he had access to some local tradition, or to some other writing now lost to us.

Gildas' main work which we are concerned with is his On The Ruin of Britain. Unfortunately, this wasn't meant to be a history, as much as a moral lecture to his contemporary Britons. In it, he continually scolds his British kings for a wide variety of unholy behavior, which, in his view, brought the Saxon invasion upon Britain as divine judgment. Gildas has the annoying habit of omitting names, focusing only on events which took place. The only fifth–century figure he does name is Ambrosius Aurelianus, an historical figure who is on record in other sources, and later became Arthur's uncle, Aurelius Ambrosius, in Geoffrey.

Gildas tells us that he was a war leader who came from a high family. He organized the Britons and led the first successful battle against the Saxons. But the battle was indecisive, and for a time, victories shifted between one side or the other, with neither side gaining any steady ground. Gildas also records that he won his battles with God's help, which tells us Ambrosius was a Christian.

Gildas tells us that Ambrosius' parents had worn the purple, a curious reference which has left scholars puzzled for some time. What is meant by "wearing the purple," is not clear. One theory is that Gildas was referring to Ambrosius' social status. Roman males in the senatorial class wore clothes with a purple band to indicate their rank. This may have been what Gildas was referring to. Another theory is that "purple" may refer to the color of blood on the battlefield. Ambrosius' parents may have been slaughtered in a massacre.

Another issue which has caused some confusion is the dating of Ambrosius' reign. Gildas tells us His descendants in our day have become greatly inferior to their grandfather's excellence. The word which is translated as "grandfather" can also mean "ancestor." Historians are unsure which meaning Gildas intended. If the "grandfather" translation is the correct one, then it places Ambrosius at about a generation before the Battle of Badon.

Because Ambrosius is the only fifth–century figure Gildas mentions, and because he goes on to write about the Battle of Badon shortly after writing about Ambrosius, some historians believe Ambrosius was Arthur. Indeed, it is strange that Gildas doesn't mention a figure who was so central to the British recovery at that time. And the layout of Gildas' surviving manuscripts does seem to place Ambrosius close to the writings about Badon, which later manuscripts attribute to Arthur. Assuming the "ancestor" translation is the correct one, Ambrosius certainly fits the mould. He was a Briton of Roman heritage who could have lived at about the right time, and he organized the Britons and helped them lead several battles against the Saxons. This much we do know for certain.

But there are two problems. The first is that "grandfather" might be the correct translation, in which case Ambrosius lived too early to be Arthur. The second is that Gildas records that victories shifted between the Britons and the Saxons, with neither party gaining any real ground – certainly an understatement of the incredible turn around for British forces that later texts attriute to Arthur, and which the archaeological evidence supports.

There is another explanation. Some historians have suggested that Gildas may have omitted Arthur simply because Arthur was so well known to the British people at that time. To mention him would have been redundant. Further, a twelfth–century Life of Gildas records that Arthur had killed Gildas' elder brother. This is consistent with historians' observations that early monastic writings tend to depict Arthur negatively, which, in Geoffrey Ashe's view, may indicate that the historical Arthur got into some sort of conflict with the Church. If Arthur did kill Gildas' elder brother, then it would explain why Gildas would have preferred not to mention him in his writing.

If this theory is correct, then it may explain not only why Gildas hardly mentions any names at all, since he may not have wished to appear as though he were singling out the king so popular to the British people, but also why Bede makes no mention of Arthur either. With regards to the period just after the Saxon invasion, Bede largely follows Gildas. And most scholars believe he had access to versions of Gildas which were closer to the originals than the ones we have today. If he was aware of some conflict between the two men, he may have chosen to follow Gildas' silence, out of respect for his fellow clergyman, or perhaps out of respect for the monastic tradition of depicting Arthur negatively.