British History, 407-597, by Fabio P. Barbieri

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Chapter 1.4: the five tyrants: Cuneglasus, Aurelius Caninus, Constantine and Vortiporius

Fabio P. Barbieri

 

Gildas singles out by name as "guilty men", catastrophic to Britain and to the Church, five contemporary kings: Constantine of Dumnonia, Vortipor of Demetia/Dyved, Aurelius Caninus, Cuneglasus lord of the Bear Fortress (possibly Din Eirth in Gwynedd) and Maglocunus, later famous in song and story as Maelgwn Gwynedd. And indeed, the amount of crimes ascribed to them - and in the case of Aurelius, to his family - is astonishing. Constantine murdered two princes, young and valiant fighters, on the very altar of a church and while disguised as an abbot; he is a parricide; he got rid of his lawfully wedded wife in order to indulge promiscuous homosexual lusts; and he has now gone into hiding, spreading the lie that he is dead, to plot God knows what new treacheries and crimes. Aurelius Caninus is guilty of so many murders, parricides and adulteries he makes Constantine look like an amateur, but on top of that he has been suborning civil war in the service of an insatiable thirst for plunder, though the deaths of his equally villainous father and brothers should warn him of the wages of sin. Vortiporius, unlike Caninus, is an old man, grown grey on a throne stained with every kind of murder (though his father was a good king - but how long ago was that?), and whose incestuous relationship with his own daughter is now, according to Gildas, an open scandal. Cuneglasus, like Caninus, is a devotee of the pleasures of civil war; he is at war with the whole island; and while he hypocritically surrounds himself with clergymen (people whom Gildas respects, oddly enough; not the kind of mercenary ecclesiastic against whom he had so much to say), he has driven out his lawful wife and fallen in love with her sister - who just happens to be a nun[1]! - and who yet is encouraging this sacrilegious bout of royal lust. As for Maglocunus... rebel; parricide; usurper; vow-breaker; adulterer; uxoricide; parricide again; fosterer of civil war; promoter of public lies... if half these charges are true, Gildas had good reason to call him greater in evil than any of the others.

Gildas treats each of his five villains differently, giving each devil his due. Three of the five, Maglocunus, Aurelius, and Cuneglasus, either are at war as Gildas is writing, or have fomented enough in the past to be regarded as a permanent danger to peace. Cuneglasus seems to be in all-out conflict with the rest of Britain: Quare tantum certamen... praestas hominibus, ciuibus scilicet...? "For what reason[2] do you show so great a rivalry... against men, indeed against [your fellow British] citizens...?" The word-choice is quite extraordinary. Cuneglasus does not pugnat or dimicat or proeliatur or contendit or conflictatur or oppugnat inimicos; and what he does is not a bellum, nor even a proelium or a pugna. He praestat tam hominibus quam Deo certamen tantum; an almost untranslatable expression whose closest English equivalent would be something like "present to men and God such competition" or "stand before men and God with such competition". Certamen describes any competitive activity, such as games or wrestling; praestare is a compound verb whose root meaning is "stand before", and that covers a great range of meanings from "stand out [among a crowd]" to "lend, give" to "preserve, allow to survive". Tantum is a word for something exceptional; not just a certamen, but such a certamen! What Cuneglasus is doing is not a small-scale conflict with neighbours, but something vast and serious enough to concern all the ciues, all those men in Britain who are free within the law[3].

I suggest that Gildas intended to lay emphasis on Cuneglasus' ambition. He wanted to unify all Cuneglasus' activities under one heading, which is that of a mad competitive spirit that wishes to praestare, in the sense of stand out; for which reason he praestat certamen tantum, presents a mighty opposition, Deo hominibusque, both to men and to God. Before men, Cuneglasus' mad ambition takes the shape of a war, a war that expresses his opposition to all the citizens of Britain by being on a unique scale, "such" a war, and fought with unusual weapons (armis specialibus) - something altogether outside even the violent parameters of sixth-century Britain. Before God, it takes the shape of a complete resolution to do whatever he, Cuneglasus, pleases, whether or not it pleases God. The element of public show and display in the verb praestare must also be taken into account: Cuneglasus wishes to "be seen", to be noted, and the instrument of this desire to appear as a big, big man, is the tantum certamen. His ambition is closely connected with a burning need for public approbation and respect.

And this explains the otherwise extraordinary detail that Cuneglasus, unlike the many kings who debauch the Church by forcing their unworthy creatures on episcopal thrones and into the priesthood, has at his court a number of really holy and respected men: sanctorum propter te corporaliter, the saints[4] who are bodily near you. The word corporaliter underlines that it is only the bodies of these men that are in any sense "near", propter, Cuneglasus; their souls are anything but! They disapprove of his deeds; and while Cuneglasus keeps them around, he seems to insist on behaving in such a way as to hurt them and trample on their sense of right and wrong. Gildas speaks of their gemitus atque suspiria, their moans and sighs, provoked by Cuneglasus' frequent injuries, crebris instigas iniuriis. Like many upstarts before and since, Cuneglasus had a genuine desire to be welcomed and admired by his betters, to have his actions approved by those whose approval matters; but all he managed to do was to produce collective revulsion among his clerical guests, and - since churchmen are in contact with each other - to have their revulsion broadcast across the island. Notice that Gildas knew the personal feelings of these men, since he took it upon himself to mention them in public; and that means he must have had an authoritative source, surely one or more of them. It is even possible that one or more of these men may have made public their revulsion at Cuneglasus' acts in an open letter of the same kind as Gildas' own; Gildas was writing in a literary genre with abundant precedents both in Britain and in the wider Roman world.

That Gildas had reliable sources at his court is also shown by the fact that he was aware of the precise stage of his sacrilegious suit and feelings; by comparison, his account of Vortiporius "raping" a "shameless daughter" is rather vague - Gildas only seems to know that a relationship existed, or was said to exist. Of Cuneglasus, he knows that he is only at the point of making eyes at his sister-in-law, suspicis, though everyone can see he is wildly in love, tota animi ueneratione, or rather driven mad by evil spirits, uel potius hebetitidine nympharum. For this woman is a furcifera - the worst insult in Gildas' vocabulary, otherwise reserved for the Saxons and Maglocunus' villainous bards; she is a consecrated widow who, having offered her virginity to God, now plans both to cheat her celestial Husband and, on a more mundane level, to steal her own sister's man. For this woman Cuneglasus proposes to renounce the kingdom of Heaven, whose freemen (municipes), Gildas warns him, cannot be adulterers! Once again, Gildas' word-choice is telling: suspicere, the verb he uses for Cuneglasus' lovesick glances at her, also means "to look upwards, to look to heaven, to look at things above oneself (such as heroes and saints)"; Cuneglasus looks at her as better men look to high things, he has transferred to her the attention that a good man or woman has for what really is above him/her; and, at the same time, he is aiming to possess what is too high for himself, a virginity that belongs, by the freely given vow of the woman herself, to God alone.

This seems to agree with Gildas addressing him as urse, "you bear", a large, rough, crude and dangerous man. Cuneglasus is no adolescent: that was long enough ago for Gildas to describe the sins of his youth as a uetusta faece, an ancient sh*t. (Old writers do sometimes force us to use language we ourselves would not, on pains of misunderstanding their very clear meaning. The image of sinners wallowing in their excrement can be found, among others, in Dante.) And yet, being now of mature years (if not as old as Vorteporius, whose aged iniquity, described just before Cuneglasus', makes a telling contrast), he insists on wallowing in it, uolueris; perhaps in his forties, he still insists on sins proper to a man's teens, hot-headed ambition, insecure self-regard, the absurd desire to be admired by one's elders even while doing everything possible to shock them, and mad affections for unsuitable women. In a very young man, these things would be understandable, though neither admirable nor excusable; in an older man, charged with the duties of a royal office, they are intolerable. They bear witness to an unrestrained nature, driven by a purposeless rage (ira) which Gildas begs him to set aside. If he wants the prayers of the saints around him, those who can bind and loose in Heaven, he should behave in such a way as to deserve them! Cuneglasus is rich, and, being rich, he is proud; but even on Earth, wealth is passing and untrustworthy; let him rather turn to those things which last for ever.

Unlike Cuneglasus, Aurelius Caninus is guilty of a whole series of limited but bloody civil wars fought for the sake of plunder, which, while apparently never as wide-ranging as Cuneglasus' tantum certamen, have made him and his family harmful to the whole patria. His situation, vividly described by Gildas, is uniquely desolate and horrible: his father and brothers all died long before their time in pursuit of a superuacuam phantasiam, a hollow and more than hollow fancy; without any family around him, he is alone, like a tree left to wither in a field.

Gildas lays some considerable stress on the evil that he and his family have done to the patria as a whole. It is interesting that he makes no similar use of the word patria to reproach Cuneglasus, although the latter really was at war against the whole fatherland. In theory, every king who falls short of his duty could indubitably be charged with harming the patria, and there has been plenty of invective before and since on the theme of "doing harm to the fatherland/nation/native soil/state/kingdom/republic/constitution/laws/people". But Gildas reserves this particular charge for Aurelius Caninus, as if the patria expected more from him than from the Red-haired Butcher. Cuneglasus' praestare is an evil, but it does not loom larger in Gildas' mind than his other acts of sacrilege and adultery. In the case of Aurelius, however, Gildas passes over the parricidiorum adulteriorum fornicationumque caeno, the mud of parricides, adulteries and fornications washing over him, in half a sentence, and fixes his gaze on the political effects of his activities and of those of his dead father and brothers: people, he says, who hated the patria's peace as if it was a death-dealing snake, because they thirsted with all their soul for internecine war and unjust and frequent plunder. For this reason, Caninus' fathers and brothers are dead before their time; for this reason, Caninus is the only one of Gildas' five villains who is threatened with immediate punishment in this world, as well as eternal agony in the next.

As I pointed out, Cuneglasus is a jumped-up nobody, puffed up by those riches whose impermanence Gildas underlines, and for this reason, one feels, trying his hardest to impress the rest of Britain. For this reason, I think, Gildas does not find his rebellion particularly despicable; not, that is, more despicable than the rest of his sins. So does the different treatment afforded to Aurelius mean that he is a Somebody? I think it does. Aurelius Caninus' name hints that he may be related to the house of Ambrosius Aurelianus, or Aurelius Ambrosius, culture hero of British monarchy[5]. The house of Aurelius Caninus sounds like a collateral branch which had taken an increasingly lonely and eccentric path in a foredoomed attempt to enlarge its own power and glory in the realm, competing, perhaps, with the senior branch. According to Gildas, he and his family hated peace like a poisonous snake: it was not just a matter of need, they had a positive passion for tearing the fabric of Britain apart. It is not a matter of one megalomaniac, but of a whole determined royal house, which, father to son and brother to brother, has systematically tried to disrupt whatever political settlement existed before them. That is, they seem to have felt that the political situation was inimical, even outrageous, to their interests and what they saw as their rights.

Unlike Cuneglasus, Caninus is not at war with the whole island at once; his wars are limited and, one by one, they may even be legally justified. There just seems to be no end to them. In the related Irish culture, most wars were fought for the sake of tribute[6], demanded by a tribe that considered itself superior, and denied by another that did not feel inferior; and the poems of the historical Taliesin[7] prove that the same was true in Britain. Taliesin wrote about three sovereigns, Cynan Garwin of Powys, Urien of Reged and Gwallawg of Elmet; and it can be shown that, of these, Cynan and Urien fight to deny tribute, and Gwallawg to exact it. Cynan's cattle "was never seen in another's pound", and the most famous of Urien's battles was against a certain Fflammddwyn, who had demanded hostages (and therefore tribute) from him. On the other hand, Gwallawg is claimed to have won tribute from several different chieftains (teyrned) across much of Britain, and may well be a king of higher rank than Cynan and Urien.[8]

Gildas significantly emphasizes that Aurelius is crebras iniuste praedas sitiens, unjustly thirsty for frequent plunder. The operative word is indubitably iniuste: the house of Aurelius Caninus is making claims for tribute and rights that no-one else will recognize, and, in order to enforce them, they are willing to drag Britain in war after war for the sake of what Gildas, like their enemies and victims, regard as "unjust plunder", while they regard it as their due tribute. This is the superuacuam phantasiam, the hollow and more than hollow dream-world in which his fathers and brothers had dabbled before him, and which had led them all to their early graves, till Aurelius Caninus was left young and companionless (the word catulus suggests youth, even adolescence), alone and wilting like a single tree in a field.

This business of standing completely alone with no allies or kinsmen is even more horrible in a Celtic culture than it would be in ours. And the house of Aurelius Caninus has cut itself off from the only resort open to kinless and stateless persons. According to an Irish law tract[9], every individual who is not under the authority of a local king, or of the overlord of a number of tuatha or small kingdoms, comes under the coercion of the third and highest rank of kingship, the king of a whole Irish province. For this reason the law text calls this rank of king ri bunaid cach cinn, the "ultimate king of each individual", to whom every person in the province is bound. The same concept turns up, in the context of wedding dues, in thirteenth-century Welsh laws: "...in a few cases, the king (brenhin) will receive the amobr in respect of a maiden for whom he is not the immediate lord (arglwydd). This is because there must be someone who can claim it, and if no other lord is entitled the king steps in: the rule of Llyfr y Damweiniau (is) that a daughter who has been rejected by her alleged father's kind (so that she has no legal father, and hence no legal lord) pays amobr to the king..."[10] People without a lord, or a tribe, or a legitimate direct authority, always come under the ultimate authority of the king. But Aurelius Caninus has made himself obnoxious to his superior, the king of all Britain; without being, like Cuneglasus, in open rebellion, he has nevertheless cut himself off from the house of Ambrosius by his crimes, his constant violence, and the cruel pursuit of claims that nobody except him recognises.

In this context, there can be little doubt that Gildas' threat to him is not only concerned with the power of God. If you do not repent now, he says, the King will shortly unsheathe his sword against you; and he promptly explains that he meant the King of Heaven. But our first impression was of a much more terrestrial monarch. The emphasis on Caninus' solitude and lack of prospects and support is not casual; and of the five kings, he is the only one who is subject to such a direct threat. In my view, therefore, Gildas is here using God as something almost like a rhetorical device, or rather as a secondary hypothesis: the king will shortly move against you - but when he does, it will be by the will of God, and it will be the sword of God, not just that of the mortal king of Britain, that is drawn against you. Gildas is unhappy with the general sluggishness of the degenerate descendants of Ambrosius[11], but in the case of Aurelius Caninus he is quite clear that something serious and final is being prepared, and is willing to announce it to the rest of Britain in a book meant for public consumption. The threat is public and meant to be effective: if Aurelius did not know that he was at least at risk of war with the senior Ambrosian house, I would be surprised.

There can be little doubt that Aurelius Caninus and Cuneglasus were kings of different rank; Gildas had different expectations of each of them, and the emphasis on Cuneglasus' wealth is in my view as much a sign of lower rank as the savage satire of lanio fulue. Wealth is what can be boasted by people of no birth or breeding, and certainly must have come a poor second to noble blood in the racist, blood-centred vision of Gildasian Britain. This is probably mirrored in the fact that the one has a Celtic name, and the other a Latin one. According to Gildas, the house of Ambrosius was "almost" the only Roman bloodline left in Britain at the time of the Saxon war. We must take this for the official doctrine, since the honour and rank of the house of Ambrosius underpins all the politics of Gildas' tract - what he wants is a return to the "good old days" of the dynasty's warrior past. It follows that all its members would certainly distinguish themselves from the ruck of insular kings as Romans against Britons.

Gildas, however, did not dare say that it was "the" only such bloodline; only that Ambrosius was forte, almost, the last. In a book dedicated at once to the duty of the Aurelian house to rule, and to the castigation of those Aurelians who had failed their duty, this forte is a most important distinction: it demands to be read as meaning that there were other blood-lines whose claims to Roman descent were beyond discussion.

One such must certainly have been the royal house of Dumnonia, whose descent from Eudav/Octavius, the father of Maxen's bride Elen, seems to have been a jealously preserved and long-lasting legend. Dumnonia was a large and naturally autonomous region including Cornwall, Devon and about half of Somerset and Dorset. Gildas (if I read him correctly) treats the country itself with loathing; Dumnonia is an inmunda leaena, an unclean she-monster whose catulus or cub Constantine apparently owes his own wickedness to its heritage. Constantine of Dumnonia, and Vortiporius of Demetia, are not at war with anyone[12], and are not similarly threatened with intervention from the central power; though Gildas can hardly restrain his desire that they and all the Five should be: ...quis e contrario ex corde ad Deum repedantibus... uindictam non potuissent inducere (50.1). For they have other sins to expiate.

Gildas starts his whole panoply of royal crime and folly with Constantine, as he is to bring to a spectacular climax with Maglocunus. The sins of the Dumnonian prince are the first step in a sequence composed with his usual constructive ability: and it must be said that - compared to the horrors ascribed to the butcher Cuneglasus, to the stubborn fosterer of civil war Aurelius Caninus, and last and worst, to the giant of evil Maglocunus, from whose biography no sin is absent except cowardice - Constantine's crimes are comparatively small beer. He is "only" guilty of sodomy, oath-breaking, murder, sacrilege and treachery - a couple of life sentences would cover it, as opposed to the Nurembergs demanded by the others' charge-sheets. His life has been a public scandal for years, though there were sides of it that even he preferred to leave private; but he had recently broken out into a most atrocious compound of crimes and sins - oath-breaking (he had sworn by the most sacred oaths to protect the lives of two royal youths), sacrilege and murder (he had then proceeded to disguise himself as an abbot and murder them at the altar) and supererogatory cruelty (he had committed the crime not only in public, but where the young men's mother could see it).

It is clear that the scandals in Constantine's private life pre-date this horrible crime by several years. Gildas is sickened to see him pile it on top of his long-indulged private sins: An ne ipsa quidem uirulenta scelerum ac si pocula pectus tuum satiare quiuerunt? could not even those same poisonous cupfuls of misdeeds satiate your heart? And on this he builds a thesis, arguing that post hoc ergo propter hoc - if this appalling sin follows upon another, if murder follows upon unrepented and indeed ostentatious lust, the two things must be related.

Put like this, it sounds like the cheapest kind of fallacious moralising: if a man indulges in lust, then he is also likely to commit treacherous murder. But Gildas' reasoning, under the multi-coloured mantle of his vividly imaginative language, is a good deal more subtle and less unconvincing. He starts from a point of character assessment: Constantine put his legitimate wife away not, like Cuneglasus and Maglocunus, to take a new partner, but simply to indulge himself. This was his first sin, and not a small one: he put himself contra Christi magistrique gentium interdictum... dicentium: Quod Deus coniunxit, homo non separet; et, Uiri, diligite uxores uestras: "Against the interdicts of Christ and of the Teacher of Nations [St.Paul], who said 'What God has joined let man not divide' and, 'Husbands, love your wives'."

But Constantine revolts against Catholic morality not only in his self-indulgence, but in the kind of lust he indulges. The two Biblical quotations stand for more than just the duty of conjugal fidelity and mutual respect: they cover the God-given duty that man should join with woman and woman with man. Gildas does not actually say that Constantine is a sodomite, but his description of the rake's progress of the Dumnonian's mind is pretty clear: crebris alternatisque faetoris adulteriorum victus - conquered by the evil smell of successive and different adulteries (that is, his lusts were promiscuous), he amarissima quoddam de vite Sodomorum in cordis sua infructuosa bono semini gleba surculamen incredulitatis et insipientiae plantauerat, had planted [pluperfect, in earlier years] in the soil of his heart, a soil sterile to good seed, a certain cutting from the hideously bitter vine of the Sodomites. The "cutting" of the Sodomite vine was the plant that would grow into incredulitas and insipientia; the Sodomite lust was there first, and the incredulitas and insipientia were only blossoms on its trunk.

The plant of atheistic, rebellious speculation grows from the cutting of a most bitter vine, that of the Sodomites, in a soil that rejects good seed. The breadth of Gildas' vocabulary, and the propriety of his images, never fail to strike. Here he is making brilliant use of classical agricultural technical terms: no proper seed (bono semini) can grow in the infructuosa gleba, the unfruitful soil, of Constantine's heart; only a cutting, surculamen, of a bitter vine - pictures carefully chosen to suggest sterility. The kind of lusts that had driven Constantine out of his marriage bed were not only, like those of Maglocunus and Cuneglasus, unlawful: they were sterile, and could only be fed by food that further poisoned the soil for any other growth, uelut quibusdam uenenatis imbribus inrigatum. They were fed uulgatis domesticisque impietatibus, by irreligious behaviour both paraded and concealed. The sentence implies that Constantine loved to make an exhibition of his behaviour (uulgatus), but that some of it was so bad that he kept it private (domesticus). Only those of his domus, of his own household, were privy to it.

I would suggest that, like many kings of peculiar tastes in history, Constantine had managed to gather a circle of faithful friends of the same tastes and minds, to support him in his actions and confirm him in his views. This, no doubt, would tend to feed what Gildas calls his irreligious behaviour (impietas), his incredulitas, and his insipientia. In the language of Church Fathers, incredulitas and insipientia are often technical words. They may mean simply disbelief and ignorance; but they can at least as often mean atheism and the kind of silly-clever talk that tries to demolish the acquired facts of faith. Insipientia stands, in fact, for any ideological effort to demolish the Catholic faith, whether by heretics, pagans, or atheists.

All his crimes, he says, begin there: it was his homosexual lusts that led him to reject emotionally both Christianity and morality. And while Gildas is quite capable of seeing the enormous difference between lust and murder[13], he argues that in the case of Constantine, the greed for more and more unlawful copulation (we must remember that his adulteries were not only frequent, crebris, but alternatibus, promiscuous) has led him to fatally corrupt his standards of right and wrong. And the reason for this revolt against divine truth (Gildas uses the strong causative conjunction enim, "for indeed") is not intellectual but emotional: the lust comes first, and insipientia, pseudo-intellectual rebellion against revealed truth, simply blossoms on its trunk by natural germination.

Acceptable or not, this is a diagnosis short neither of subtlety nor of intellectual dignity. And it answers one question: where did the sudden, shameless and cruel evil of Constantine come from? The kind of mind disposed to swear the most awful public oath to protect two young lives and then to indulge in their equally public slaughter in the most atrocious conditions possible: at the altar, in the presence of their mother, and in front of holy priests and faithful - the mind capable of conceiving and enacting such enormities must have taken years to degenerate to such a stage. And this is Gildas' thesis: being incurably at odds with religion and morality because of the irregularity in his life, Cuneglasus has lost all adhesion to them; and therefore he has been capable of such a monstrosity - not only murder, but treacherous murder; not only treacherous, but public murder; not only public, but sacrilegious murder; not only sacrilegious murder, but murder committed in the presence of the victims' mother! There is, indeed, an abandoned exhibitionism about it that agrees to some extent with what Gildas describes as Constantine's scandalous display; after all, a knife in the dark would have disposed of the two princes just as efficiently - just as Maglocunus, for instance, disposed of unwanted relatives - but Constantine had to commit his murder in a blaze of publicity, as if throwing it in everyone's face; only to then go into hiding and pretend to be dead: just like he had earlier flaunted many of his activities as if he had no shame, and yet kept some of them hidden.

There is an indication that Constantine had reasons for his crimes. In a typically vivid image, Gildas speaks of him turning his own spears and swords on himself "in place of his enemies", inimicorum uice: in a spiritual sense, he is forestalling them, doing to his own soul (animae carnifex propriae) what his enemies would want to do to his body. Gildas is implying that he does have enemies, and enemies willing to turn "swords and spears" against him. This is surely connected with his disappearance and the false report of his death; he is in hiding. And Gildas reminds him that God has no feuds, that He desires that sinners should be converted and live, that He is peace - in other words, the exact opposite of a life of violent hatreds and everlasting plots. And as there is no mention of external war (though the two princes are said to have been very valiant), the dangers and plots that threaten him must be Dumnonian. This clearly suggests that the politics of Dumnonia were dominated by plots and vendette, and that Constantine was only a part of them (after all, the fact that he swore to respect the two young princes' lives means that he had some reason to fear them).

But whatever enemies may have threatened Constantine, can anything justify the horror of what he has done? Killing enemies is one thing; but killing them at the altar, before their own mother and a gathering of holy men, is something that can hardly be explained. Constantine may not have committed as many crimes as Aurelius Caninus or Maglocunus, but would even they consider such a complete and public outrage? His crimes were not as systematic or long-lasting as those of the other four tyrants - who, in their various ways, had made careers out of murder, treachery, civil war and plunder - but they were so exceptional that, when Gildas wanted an example of perfect, abandoned, and total wickedness, his mind naturally turned to the hidden Dumnonian prince.

One question arises from Gildas' description of the five tyrants: how much, exactly, can we rely on his information? And that depends on another: how did he receive his information, and how did he assess it? In the case of Vortiporius of Demetia, this is a particularly interesting question. Gildas seems to have less hard information about this man than any of the other four. He accuses him of a number of parricides, treacheries and adulteries, in the course of a long career - he is an old man and not far from death. But what really stimulated him to write is that, in his old age, the "wicked son of a good king" is said to have committed a crime none of the others had thought of. He is there, in a sense, for completeness, so that the tally of British wickedness should be fuller. Quid tu quoque, he asks, ...canescente iam capite, in throno dolis pleno et ab imis uertice tenus diuersis parricidiis et adulteriis constuprato, boni regis nequam fili... Demetarum tyranne Uortipori, stupide riges? Why do you too... your hair already growing white, sit stupidly stiffening on a throne full of deception, gang-raped (constuprato) from top to bottom with all sorts of parricide and adultery, wicked son of a good king, Vortipor, tyrant of the Demetae? ...quid quasi culminis malorum omnium, stupro, propria tua amota coniuge eiusdemque honesta morte, impudentis filiae, quodam ineluctabili pondere miseram animam oneras? Why, as a climax to all evils, do you charge your wretched soul, after your own wife had left you and honestly died, with the irremovable weight of the rape (stupro) of a shameless daughter?

With his usual artistry, Gildas places the notion of rape into the very heart of Vortipor's wicked career: as he had "raped", in fact "gang-raped", constuprato, his own throne, with adultery, treachery and the murder of relatives, there is nothing surprising, he implies, about Vortipor's incestuous "rape". But his reasoning here is the weakest in all his descriptions, and it is clear that Vortipor has committed no recent murder or treachery on the scale of Constantine's or Maglocunus', for whose crimes Gildas gives chapter and verse; rather, Gildas digs up old scandals, probably much earlier in the old man's career, to decorate the one live issue in his mind - the open scandal of his relationship with his daughter. And it is interesting to note that Gildas does not describe this rumoured affair with anything like the clarity that details the rake's progresses of Maglocunus or Constantine, let alone his precise knowledge of the state of Cuneglasus' illegitimate suit. He treats the stuprum as a fact, but does not say anything about how it happened, or when, or why; while he gives a clear account of the pressures and divisions in the souls of Constantine and Maglocunus. He only knows it happened, not how or why.

What he does know is that the stuprum was consensual. Gildas uses the word not because he saw Vortipor's act as actual incestuous rape, but because it was an illegal sexual relationship; his words make clear that the impudens filia was seen as a more than willing partner. And that being the case, an alternative explanation may be proposed - more common, more straightforward, and a bit less squalid. Gildas' adjective impudens, a participle present that suggests active exhibition, indicates that she flaunted her relationship with her father; but, if she had actually been having a sexual relationship with him, she would have been likelier to conceal it. British chiefs were vulnerable to public opinion; Gildas' whole enterprise does not make sense unless they were; and Vortipor, however infatuated, is not likely to have wanted the atrocious name of a violator of his own daughter - I mean that if he had done it, he would have concealed it. On the other hand, Vortipor was a widower with a young daughter. I suggest that, with the old man surrounded only by the usual sort of bootlicking courtier garbage, the lady may have used her youth and charm to endear herself with her father and acquire that kind of court influence that other courtiers always resent most: the unofficial, yet effective hold of a young woman over an ageing authoritarian. Vortipor was probably feared, if Gildas' allusions to the colourful incidents of his earlier career are anything to go by. His court must have been the usual hotbed of intrigue, gossip and struggle for influence. If the young woman was unwise enough to flaunt her power over her father - as court favourites, especially young ones, often do - it is only to be expected that the most poisonous rumours would soon be circulating. Courtier jealousy would see to that.

It is, of course, also possible to believe that the incest in question had been real, merrily and shamelessly consummated. Nothing is impossible for an old tyrant who murdered his way to absolute power and has grown grey in it. In his address to him as boni regi nequam fili, Gildas may allude to the greatest of crimes: the words Tu, quoque, fili, in the vocative, found at various stages in the sentence, may be an echo of Caesar's reported last words (badly mauled by Shakespeare) as Brutus - supposedly his natural son - stabbed him: tu quoque, Brute, fili mi? You too, Brutus, my son? Gildas knows almost nothing about Roman Britain, but that does not mean that he could not know the probably best-known of all stories of Rome and Caesar; and Brutus could be seen, like Gildas' Vortiporius, as the "bad son of a good king", indeed the best of kings, Caesar. This suggests a deliberate verbal reminiscence. Gildas mentions "parricides", in the plural, as among Vortipor's crimes: perhaps he was rumoured to have killed his father.

Either way, however, the importance of these things is not so much in the detail, some of it fussy and ininfluential, of sixth century politics; they only tell, one way or another, stories known to historians of every period, and their influence over larger British history is not altogether clear and may be small. Rather, it is in the estimate we are to put on Gildas' account of his times. ow much did he really know? And how did he know it? How reliable is his report of his age?

I think that there are various degrees of credibility in his work. That he wrote in the certainty that what he said was true - and more, acquired public fact - seems to me obvious. Even if he had been a liar on a Goebbels scale (and I don't believe he was), he would have had to make use of accepted fact rather than invent it, since he was surely not in a position to control the flow of information to the public. There were, for instance, Maglocunus' bootlicking bards to convey the big man's viewpoint, though they, too, did not have things all their own way. Gildas assumes that Maglocunus' murder of his wife and his nephew is common knowledge; it probably is, but is it true? What is certain is that both people died, and that, after an indecently short period of mourning, the king married the widow. Even if he had been wholly innocent of their deaths, public opinion was sure to think otherwise. His answer, according to Gildas, was to brazen it out, instructing his bards to celebrate his "legitimate" marriage to a "widow". We have to agree with Gildas and public opinion: two such deaths, when the "widowed" husband is out for the "widow" of his nephew, are really too convenient for coincidence. But Gildas was, in this, no closer to actual knowledge, as opposed to reasonable conjecture, than the British man in the street.

It may be otherwise in other cases. Gildas says that he "knows" that the supposedly dead Constantine of Dumnonia is in fact alive and hidden; he does not say how he knows that, but he stakes his reputation on the fact. It is hard not to suppose he had confidential sources. He is also well acquainted with his private life over several years; including, he hints, those bits that even the shameless Constantine prefers not to flaunt. He may have hated Dumnonia as a leaena, but he certainly must have had friends there: his very visual description of the blood of the two murdered young princes spread over the altar like a coverlet suggests that he may even have been present at the murder, or received an eyewitness account. In the case of Aurelius Caninus, the question does not need asking, since the crimes with which he is reproached are wholly public and political, not only known to all Britain, but also - as Gildas suggests - soon to result in a war. In the case of Cuneglasus, Gildas knows his state of mind even better than Constantine's; he is informed, in fact, about a sacrilegious royal affair that is only now beginning to take place - Cuneglasus is only making eyes to his sister-in-law at present. In the case of Maglocunus, while John Morris is quite right about there being a sense of personal defeat and loss in Gildas' treatment of the great bandit, there is no information about his past and present life that could not be drawn from the public domain: his rebellion against his royal uncle, his brief monastic period, his vow-breaking, his marriage, the sudden deaths of his wife and nephew and his scandalous second marriage, were all, in the nature of things, public matters which anyone in Britain would have heard about.

It is significant for the assessment of his claims of universal depravity that Gildas seems, as I said, to have included Vortiporius in his list only because of the rumours of incest from his court. Yet Vortiporius was scarcely known only for that; in his earlier days he had committed every crime in the calendar, killing relatives and strangers alike, perhaps even - if we believe that Gildas was quoting Caesar's last words - murdering his own father. If we are to understand that Gildas would not have mentioned him unless he had heard of this latest enormity, this proves that there were a good many other kings around who had committed crimes as bad as murder and yet were apparently not bad enough to mention by name.

What is more convincing than anything else is that Gildas' knowledge varies from kingdom to kingdom, from the mere rumour he has heard coming from the court of Vortipor to his clear knowledge of Cuneglasus and his mysterious yet reliable sources about Constantine. Evidently he draws from different sources for his accounts of the crimes of the five tyrants; and this suggests that he was not building as it were a mythology of British wickedness, but recording things he had really heard and perhaps, in one or two occasions, seen as well.Notes


[1]To be precise, a consecrated widow. Virgin widowhood as a specific order within the Church was known to St. Paul, but has not survived as an independent order in the historical Catholic Church; it is interesting to find it in Gildasian Britain.

[2]Quare can mean either "for what reason" or "by what means, in what way". The former alternative is clearly the right one; apart that to ask Cuneglasus "by what means" he is fighting his great war is pointless, Gildas actually mentions the means he is using - armis specialibus, special weapons (Cuneglasus may have been known for a special panoply of his own, or his troops may have had special training and unusual tactics). What he is saying is that, whatever reason Cuneglasus many have had, it can't be good enough to defy both the legitimate authorities of Britain and God Himself.

[3]For the Gildasian meaning of ciues cf. Book 7, ch.4, “Ethnic and cultural consequences of the war”, below; also SNYDER op.cit.72-80, especially the telling remark: "unlike Patrick... Gildas never links the words ciues and Romani". Gildas may well be using ciuis to underline the socially inferior, non-Roman origins of Cuneglasus, whose natural point of reference are not the Romani but the British ciues.

[4]The wording strongly suggests that they are ecclesiastics in orders, but it is just possible Gildas might refer to laymen whose life was famous for its holiness.

[5]Another British nobleman of Aurelian descent may have been St.Paul Aurelian, founder of St.Pol-de-Leon in Brittany.

[6]F.J.BYRNE, Irish Kings and High Kings, London 1987, pp.45-46.

[7]Taliesin, the earliest known Welsh poet, was a magnificent praise-singer who worked mainly for Urien, the petty king of Rheged - see Appendix 7. Twelve of his songs survive, and do more than enough to explain why he was regarded as a classic of the Welsh language; so much so that the legend of the poet, the caste-hero of the whole class of poets, was attached to him.

[8]Taliesin Poems, translated by Meirion Pennar, Llanerch 1988, passim.

[9]The Crith Gablach, quoted in BYRNE op.cit. p.42.

[10]DAFYDD JENKINS, Kings, lords and princes: the nomenclature of authority in thirteenth-century Wales, in Bulletin of the Board of Celtic Studies 26 (1976), 457.

[11]And of the ecclesiastics of his time. In his Quis...? sequence, he complains that nobody has matched Melchizedek in "defeating five kings and their terrible armies" (69.3) - a not very subtle invitation to call for the Crusade, not only against the Saxons, but against his five villains too.

[12]By a curious coincidence, these are the only two tyrants whose territorial title is given; the other three, who are or have recently been at war, are mentioned only by name. I don't know what to make of this; it does not seem likely to mean much, unless of course it reflected in some way the dangerous and unstable condition of a king at war, who might soon be deprived of title and power.

[13]Gildas certainly was not ignorant of homosexuality: it is one of the sins for which his Penitential makes prescriptions. This in turn suggests that he had had to deal with specific cases, since the Penitential is in my view not a systematic treatment of sin, but rather a compilation of rulings given on specific occasions and somewhat systematized in the editing. Interestingly, he treats the sin of sodomy exactly the same as that of fornicatio naturalis: both are violations of the monastic vow of chastity and demand similar punishment. In a Celtic society, with a strong presence of military, all-male, and emotionally-involving social groups such as elite fighting units and warrior kings' courts, homosexuality, even emotional homosexuality, might well have been a frequent temptation. Other Penitentials, contemporary or slightly later - such as the Synod of the grove of victory, the Fragment of St.David, even the severe Penitential of Columbanus - likewise deal with sodomy, and even bestiality, in a manner that would have seemed unwontedly kindly to Justinian's lawyers, who introduced the death penalty for it in the Justinian Code, thus poisoning European law for more than a thousand years. On the whole, our grim and semi-barbarous Celtic monks were wiser and saner than Trebonianus with his mountains of Roman legal learning.

History of Britain, 407-597 is copyright 2002, Fabio P. Barbieri. Used with permission.

Comments to: Fabio P. Barbieri


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