The Sons of Mordred

There was a prophet of the people in the time of the Britons called Gildas. He wrote about their misdeeds, how they so angered God that in the end he caused the army of the English to conquer their land and utterly destroy the strength of the Britons. And that was the result of the irregularity of the clergy and the lawlessness of the laity.
Wulfstan, early 11th century [1]

Of the three texts which underlay Arthurian history in Geoffrey’s day, only one still holds its position as a valid source document in the eyes of Dark Age historians. The Historia Brittonum has taken its place among the rest of British tradition as historically worthless for any study of the period. Bede, though an excellent historian, is too late an authority to have anything valid to say about the fifth and sixth centuries. The only historical source for this era is the sole surviving contemporary text, Gildas’ The Ruin of Britain.

Gildas’ sermon was the foundation of the English view of Arthurian Britain in Geoffrey’s day, just as in ours. Bede’s story rests entirely on Gildas’ authority: The wicked Britons under Roman leadership won a notable victory over the pagan invaders but proved unworthy to enjoy its fruits. The wickedness of the Britons becomes, in modern parlance, political incompetence. Roman Britain degenerated into sub-Roman Britain as the natives proved themselves unable to maintain the progress and discipline bequeathed them by the Empire. The legitimate Roman administration was replaced by war lords whose endemic violence ultimately destroyed their own society. Gildas, no longer a prophet, is now viewed as a shrewd political commentator who correctly analysed the evils of his own society and tried to warn of their inevitable consequences. Geoffrey presents a very different view.

The final chapter of his history is taken almost entirely from Bede and Gildas. It begins with the first of Gildas’ five tyrants, Constantine of Dumnonia. Whelp of the filthy lioness of Dumnonia, Gildas addresses him in his exile: “I know full well you are still alive, and I charge you as though you were present...”.[2] At the root of Constantine’s sins is the fact that he put away his lawful wife, which act somehow gave rise to the crimes of parricide and sacrilege. We have no details on the parricide, but as for the sacrilege, Constantine had bound himself by oath not to harm two royal youths, but then he slew them in church, at the alter, in front of their own mother.

In Geoffrey’s story Constantine is Arthur’s cousin, the son of Cador King of Cornwall, and the rightful King of Britain. Immediately he is raised to the throne the two sons of Mordred with their Saxon allies rebel against him. Defeated, the youths flee to sanctuary, one to the church of St. Amphibalus in Winchester, the other to a friary in London. Constantine, having forced the Saxons into submission, catches up with them both in turn and slays them, in each case, before the alter.

Honest Gildas, Gildas the wise, is the verdict on this writer among his fellow monks from Bede through to William of Newburgh, and Dark Age historians today continue in the same tradition. Geoffrey introduces us to a very different Gildas. His Gildas is not merely a useless historian with an appalling Latin style, he is a traitor to his own race. Gildas’ veneration for the Romans is evident in every line of his historical section, and it is the Romans, in Geoffrey’s history, who precipitate Arthur’s fall. Arthur’s absence on the Continent, responding to Rome’s challenge to his rule, allows enemies at home their opportunity. After Camlann these dissident Britons continue their revolt against his legitimate successor Constantine - and Gildas is on the side of the rebels.

Of course Dark Age historians know Geoffrey is making it up. The two youths slain by Constantine are not the sons of Mordred. But then, who are they? And why did Constantine kill them? Did the two youths rebel against his rule? Gildas tells us they fought: “Their arms were stretched out not to weapons - though almost no man handled them more bravely than they at this time”.[3] But he does not tell us who they fought against.

Gildas, who has nothing but praise for the youths, condemns King Constantine in the most intemperate language. Dark Age historians unhesitatingly accept his judgement as valid. But what is it that renders Gildas’ judgement so far above reproach? For most of what he has to say about his contemporaries he is our sole witness, his story confirmed by no other report. Where we do have a check on him, as we do for most of historical section, it turns out that in every case Gildas story is false. Historians excuse this. Gildas’ errors are no fault of his, he did the best he could. His history is nonsense because, in the degenerate sub-Roman Britain of his day, there were no written sources available to him. But how do we know that? Because Gildas says so!

Dark Age historians are remarkably willing to let our solitary witness vouch for himself. Gildas is an honest patriot, berating his contemporaries from the best possible motives. He says so himself: “my intentions are kindly”. This vituperative sermon is wrung from him only after much reflection “my thoughts, like joint debtors, kept checkmating each other”. But after ten years of holding his peace can no longer keep silent, now, “spurred on by my own thoughts and the devout prayers of my brethren”, he must oppose this “rope of congenital sin that has been stretched far and wide for so many years together”. Duty forces Gildas to denounce his race as congenitally evil, but let no-one imagine he is any less a patriot: “No, I sympathise with my country’s difficulties and rejoice in remedies to relieve them”.[4] Historians today are convinced. Geoffrey is not, and he intends his readers to share his opinion.

Geoffrey addresses himself to lay readers who have had enough of monk historians. Twelfth century monks condemned the violence of the knights, a violence necessitated by their position. And Gildas the monk condemns the violence of the five tyrants. These were military men: fighting was their job, their duty to their families, their followers, their heirs. Should Constantine have allowed himself to be driven meekly from his throne? Should Aurelius Caninus, “left like a solitary tree, withering in the middle of the field”[5] after his father and his brothers have been slain, have allowed their deaths to go unavenged and surrendered his lands to those who slew them? Could Cuneglasus, “you bear, rider of many and driver of the chariot of the Bear’s Stronghold”, who waged war “against... our countrymen, with arms special to yourself”,[6] have held onto his stronghold had he disarmed? And what of “the first in evil”, Maglocunus, dragon of the island, who slew his own uncle and in remorse turned monk. Wickedly he has left his monastery and returned to the throne, to secular life and to marriage, “like some sick hound to your disgusting vomit”.[7] This is not an analogy likely to find favour with Geoffrey’s target readership.

Dark Age historians regard Gildas as a decent patriot resorting to strong language in his efforts to warn his fellow countrymen. Geoffrey’s Gildas is no impartial, wise observer, he is a partizan. The modern opinion is that Gildas’ sermon condemned Britain’s descent into civil war, that he sought to check the “lawlessness of the laity” which finally destroyed their own country. In Geoffrey’s story Gildas’ tyrants are the rightful rulers of Britain, defending the throne from attempted usurpation - the only fomenter of civil strife he admits is Keredic, a king not on Gildas’ list. In the view of historians today there is no question that Gildas’ victims deserved the abuse he heaps on their heads. Geoffrey questions it. And if we actually examine Gildas’ testimony, it is plain he had good reason to.

Heretic Emperor: The Lost History of King Arthur
Copyright © V M Pickin 2009

Return to Home Page

Footnotes

1. Gildas: the Ruin of Britain, Michael Winterbottom, introduction, p5

2. Gildas, The Ruin of Britain, 29.1

3. Gildas, The Ruin of Britain, 28.2

4. Gildas, The Ruin of Britain, 1.1, 1.15, 1.16, 1.14, 1.1

5. Gildas, The Ruin of Britain, 30.2

6. Gildas, The Ruin of Britain, 32.1

7. Gildas, The Ruin of Britain, 33.1, 34.5