Gildas's The Ruin of Britain


Prior to the 7th century, very few sources survive for our knowledge of early British and Anglo-Saxon history. The primary exception to that rule is The Ruin of Britain, written by the British churchman, Gildas, around the year 540. Gildas warned his readers that sin might bring divine punishment. In particular, he criticised five contemporary princes whose behaviour had, he claimed, brought the wrath of God upon the British in the form of heathen Saxon invaders.

These fire-damaged pages contain an extended rant against Maelgwn of Gwynedd (d. 547), whom Gildas describes as the ‘island dragon’ (insularis draco). Maelgwn is identified as the worst ruler of all, notwithstanding (or perhaps because of) his educational advantages, having been taught by ‘an elegant teacher, the instructor of almost the whole of Britain’.

Gildas’s apocalyptic warnings were adapted by later writers, including Alcuin in the late 8th century, attempting to explain the first viking raids, and Wulfstan in the early 11th century, during the collapse of the reign of Æthelred the Unready.

This manuscript was made approximately 400 years after Gildas was writing. It was damaged in the Cotton Library fire in 1731, but parts of the manuscript remain legible.

Full title:
Gildas, De excidio Britanniae (imperfect)
Mid-10th century
Usage terms

Public Domain in most countries other than the UK.

Held by
British Library
Cotton MS Vitellius A VI

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