I have removed the biblical rhetoric from Gildas's Epistle against the tyrants of Britain, making it easier to read the actual facts of of what he was trying to say about Britain of the time. Stopping before he reproaches the clergy.
III. THE EPISTLE.
27. BRITAIN has kings, but they are tyrants; she has judges, but unrighteous ones; generally engaged in plunder and rapine, but always preying on the innocent; whenever they exert themselves to avenge or protect, it is sure to be in favour of robbers and criminals; they have an abundance of wives, yet are they addicted to fornication and adultery; they are ever ready to take oaths, and as often perjure themselves; they make a vow and almost immediately act falsely; they make war, but their wars are against their countrymen, and are unjust ones; they rigorously prosecute thieves throughout their country, but those who sit at table with them are robbers, and they not only cherish but reward them; they give alms plentifully, but in contrast to this is a whole pile of crimes which they have committed; they sit on the seat of justice, but rarely seek for the rule of right judgment; they despise the innocent and the humble, but seize every occasion of exalting to the utmost the bloody-minded; the proud, murderers, the combined and adulterers, enemies of God, who ought to be utterly destroyed and their names forgotten. They have many prisoners in their gaols, loaded with chains, but this is done in treachery rather than in just punishment for crimes; and when they have stood before the altar, swearing by the name of God, they go away and think no more of the holy altar than if it were a mere heap of dirty stones.
28. Of this horrid abomination, Constantine, the tyrannical whelp of the unclean lioness of Damnonia, is not ignorant. This same year, after taking a dreadful oath (whereby he bound himself first before God, by a solemn protestation, and then called all the saints, and Mother of God, to witness, that he would not contrive any deceit against his countrymen), he nevertheless, in the habit of a holy abbat amid the sacred altars, did with sword and javelin, as if with teeth, wound and tear, even in the bosoms of their temporal mother, and of the church their spiritual mother, two royal youths, with their two attendants, whose arms, although not eased in armour, were yet boldly used, and, stretched out towards God and his altar, will hang up at the gates of thy city, O Christ, the venerable ensigns of their faith and patience; and when he had done it, the cloaks, red with coagulated blood, did touch the place of the heavenly sacrifice. And not one worthy act could he boast of previous to this cruel deed; for many years before he had stained himself with the abomination of many adulteries, having put away his wife contrary to the command of Christ, the teacher of the world, who hath said: "What God hath joined together, let not man separate," and again: "Husbands, love your wives." For he had planted in the ground of his heart (an unfruitful soil for any good seed) a bitter scion of incredulity and folly, taken from the vine of Sodom, which being watered with his vulgar and domestic impieties, like poisonous showers, and afterwards audaciously springing up to the offence of God, brought forth into the world the sin of horrible murder and sacrilege; and not yet discharged from the entangling nets of his former offences, he added new wickedness to the former.
29. Go to now, I reprove thee as present, whom I know as yet to be in this life extant. Why standest thou astonished, O thou butcher of shine own soul? Why cost thou wilfully kindle against thyself the eternal fires of hell? Why cost thou, in place of enemies, desperately stab thyself with shine own sword, with shine own javelin? Cannot those same poisonous cups of offences yet satisfy thy stomach? I look back (I beseech thee) and come to Christ (for thou labourest, and art pressed down to the earth with this huge burden), and he himself, as he said, will give thee rest. Come to him who wisheth not the death of a sinner, but that he should be rather converted and live. Unloose (according to the prophet) the bands of thy neck, O thou son of Sion. Return (I pray thee), although from the far remote regions of sins, unto the most holy Father, who, for his son that will despise the filthy food of swine, and fear a death of cruel famine, and so come back to him again, hath with great joy been accustomed to kill his fatted calf, and bring forth for the wanderer, the first robe and royal ring, and then taking as it were a taste of the heavenly hope, thou shalt perceive how sweet our Lord is. For if thou cost contemn these, be thou assured, thou shalt almost instantly be tossed and tormented in the inevitable and dark floods of endless fire.
30. What cost thou also, thou lion's whelp (as the prophet saith), Aurelius Conanus? Art not thou as the former (if not far more foul) to thy utter destruction, swallowed up in the filthiness of horrible murders, fornications, and adulteries, as by an overwhelming flood of the sea? Hast not thou by hating, as a deadly serpent, the peace of thy country, and thirsting unjustly after civil wars and frequent spoil, shut the gates of heavenly peace and repose against thine own soul? Being now left alone as a withering tree in the midst of a field, remember (I beseech thee) the vain and idle fancies of thy parents and brethren, together with the untimely death that befell them in the prime of their youth; and shalt thou, for thy religious deserts, be reserved out of all thy family to live a hundred years, or to attain to the age of a Methusalem? No, surely, but unless (as the psalmist saith) thou shalt be speedily converted unto our Lord, that King will shortly brandish his sword against thee, who hath said by his prophet, "I will kill, and I will cause to live; I will strike, and I will heal; and there is no one who can deliver out of my hand." Be thou therefore shaken out of thy filthy dust, and with all thy heart converted to Him who hath created thee, that "when his wrath shall shortly burn out, thou mayst be blessed by fixing thy hopes on him." But if otherwise, eternal pains will be heaped up for thee, where thou shalt be ever tormented and never consumed in the cruel jaws of hell.
31. Thou also, who like to the spotted leopard, art diverse in manners and in mischief, whose head now is growing grey, who art seated on a throne full of deceits, and from the bottom even to the top art stained with murder and adulteries, thou naughty son of a good king, like Manasses sprung from Ezechiah, Vortipore, thou foolish tyrant of the Demetians, why art thou so stiff? What! do not such violent gulfs of sin (which thou dost swallow up like pleasant wine, nay rather which swallow thee up), as yet satisfy thee, especially since the end of thy life is daily now approaching? Why cost thou heavily clog thy miserable soul with the sin of lust, which is fouler than any other, by putting away thy wife, and after her honourable death, by the base practices of thy shameless daughter? Waste not (I beseech thee) the residue of thy life in offending God, because as yet an acceptable time and day of salvation shines on the faces of the penitent, wherein thou mayest take care that thy flight may not be in the winter, or on the sabbath day. "Turn away (according to the psalmist) from evil, and do good, seek peace and ensue it," because the eyes of our Lord will be cast upon thee, when thou doest righteousness, and his ears will be then open unto thy prayers, and he will not destroy thy memory out of the land of the living; thou shalt cry, and he will hear thee, and out of thy tribulations deliver thee; for Christ cloth never despise a heart that is contrite and humbled with fear of him. Otherwise, the worm of thy torture shall not die, and the fire of thy burning shall never be extinguished.
Why do you role in the filth of the past wickedness of your youth, You bear, you who ride with many, the leader of a kingdom which is a refuge for dangerous men, despiser of God and oppressor of his lot, Cuneglasus, in the Roman tongue tawny butcher. Why dost thou raise so great a war as well against men as also against God himself, against men, yea, thy own countrymen, with thy deadly weapons, and against God with thine infinite offences? Why, besides thine other innumerable backslidings, having thrown out of doors thy wife, dost thou, in the lust, or rather stupidity of thy mind, against the apostle's express prohibition, denouncing that no adulterers can be partakers of the kingdom of heaven, esteem her detestable sister, who had vowed unto God the everlasting continencey, as the very dower (in the language of the poet) of the celestial nymphs? Why dost thou provoke with thy frequent injuries the lamentations and sighs of saints, by thy means corporally afflicted, which will in time to come, like a fierce lioness, break thy bones in pieces? Desist, I beseech thee (as the prophet saith) from wrath, and leave off thy deadly fury, which thou breathest out against heaven and earth, against God and his flock, and which in time will be thy own torment; rather with altered mind obtain the prayers of those who possess a power of binding over this world, when in this world they bind the guilty, and of losing when they lose the penitent. Be not (as the apostle saith) proudly wise, nor hope thou in the uncertainty of riches, but in God who giveth thee many things abundantly, and by the amendment of thy manners purchase unto thyself a good foundation for hereafter, and seek to enter into that real and true state of existence which will be not transitory but everlasting. Otherwise, thou shalt know and see, yea, in this very world, how bad and bitter a thing it is for thee to leave the Lord thy God, and not have his fear before thine eyes, and in the next, how thou shalt be burned in the foul encompassing flames of endless fire, nor yet by any manner of means shalt ever die. For the souls of the sinful are as eternal in perpetual fire, as the souls of the just in perpetual joy and gladness.
33. And likewise, O thou dragon of the island, who hast deprived many tyrants, as well of their kingdoms as of their lives, and though the last-mentioned in my writing, the first in mischief, exceeding many in power, and also in malice, more liberal than others in giving, more licentious in sinning, strong in arms, but stronger in working thine own soul's destruction, Maglocune, why art thou (as if soaked in the wine of the Sodomitical grape) foolishly rolling in that black pool of thine offences? Why dost thou wilfully heap like a mountain, upon thy kingly shoulders, such a load of sins? Why dost thou show thyself unto the King of kings who hath made thee as well in kingdom as in stature of body higher than almost all the other chiefs of Britain) not better likewise in virtues than the rest; but on the contrary for thy sins much worse? Listen then awhile and hear patiently the following enumeration of thy deeds, wherein I will not touch any domestic and light offences (if yet any of them are light) but only those open ones which are spread far and wide in the knowledge of all men. Didst not thou, in the very beginning of thy youth, terribly oppress with sword, spear, and fire, the king thine uncle, together with his courageous bands of soldiers, whose countenances in battle were not unlike those of young lions? Not regarding the words of the prophet, who says, "The blood-thirsty and deceitful men shall not live out half their days," and even if the sequel of thy sins were not such as ensued, yet what retribution couldst thou expect for this offence only at the hands of the just Judge, who hath said by his prophet: "Woe be to thee who spoilest, and shalt not thou thyself be spoiled? and thou who killest, shalt not thyself be killed? and when thou shalt make an end of thy spoiling, then shalt thou thyself fall."
34. But when the imagination of thy violent rule had succeeded according to thy wishes, and thou west urged by a desire to return into the right way, night and day the consciousness of thy crimes afflicted thee, whilst thou didst ruminate on the Lord's ritual and the ordinances of the monks, and then publish to the world and vow thyself before God a monk with no intention to be unfaithful, as thou didst say, having burst through those toils in which such great beasts as thyself were used to become entangled, whether it were love of rule, of gold, or silver, or, what is stronger still, the fancies of thy own heart. And didst thou not, as a dove which cleaves the yielding air with its pinions, and by its rapid turns escapes the furious hawk, safely return to the cells where the saints repose, as a most certain place of refuge? Oh how great a joy should it have been to our mother church, if the enemy of all mankind had not lamentably pulled thee, as it were, out of her bosom! Oh what an abundant flame of heavenly hope would have been kindled in the hearts of desperate sinners, hadst thou remained in thy blessed estate! Oh what great rewards in the kingdom of Christ would have been laid up for thy soul against the day of judgment, if that crafty wolf had not caught thee, who of a wolf wast now become a lamb (not much against thine own will) out of the fold of our Lord, and made thee of a lamb, a wolf like unto himself, again? Oh how great a joy would the preservation of thy salvation have been to God the Father of all saints had not the devil, the father of all castaways, as an eagle of monstrous wings and claws, carried thee captive away against all right and reason, to the unhappy band of his children? And to be short, thy conversion to righteousness gave as great joy to heaven and earth, as now thy detestable return, like a dog to his vomit, breedeth grief and lamentation: which being done, "the members which should have been busily employed, as the armour of justice for the Lord, are now become the armour of iniquity for sin and the devil;" for now thou dost not listen to the praises of God sweetly sounded forth by the pleasant voices of Christ's soldiers, nor the instruments of ecclesiastical melody, but thy own praises (which are nothing) rung out after the fashion of the giddy rout of Bacchus by the mouths of thy villainous followers, accompanied with lies and malice, to the utter destruction of the neighbours, so that the vessel prepared for the service of God, is now turned to a vessel of dirt, and what was once reputed worthy of heavenly honour, is now cast as it deserves into the bottomless pit of hell.
35. Yet neither is thy sensual mind (which is overcome by the excess of thy follies) at all checked in its course with committing so many sins, but hot and prone (like a young colt that coveteth every pleasant pasture) runneth headlong forward, with irrecoverable fury, through the intended fields of crime, continually increasing the number of its transgressions. For the former marriage of thy first wife (although after thy violated vow of religion she was not lawfully thine, but only by right of the time she was with thee), was now despised by thee, and another woman, the wife of a man then living, and he no stranger, but thy own brother's son, enjoyed thy affections. Upon which occasion that stiff neck of thine (already laden with sins) is now burdened with two monstrous murders, the one of thy aforesaid nephew, the other, of her who once was thy wedded wife: and thou art now from low to lower, and from bad to worse, bowed, bent, and sunk down into the lowest depth of sacrilege. Afterwards, also didst thou publicly marry the widow by whose deceit and suggestion such a heavy weight of offences was undergone, and take her, lawfully, as the flattering tongues of thy parasites with false words pronounced it, but as we say, most wickedly, to be thine own in wedlock. And therefore what holy man is there, who, moved with the narration of such a history, would not presently break out into weeping and lamentations?
And, the just king (according to the prophet) raiseth up his region. But warnings truly are not wanting to thee, since thou hast had for thy instructor the most eloquent master of almost all Britain. Take heed, thereof, lest that which Solomon noteth, befall thee.
If as I said, thou scorn us, who obey these texts, the dark flood of hell shall without doubt eternally drown thee in that deadly whirlpool, and those terrible streams of fire that shall ever torment and never consume thee, and then shall the confession of thy pains and sorrow for thy sins be altogether too late and unprofitable to one, who now in this accepted time and day of salvation deferreth his conversion to a more righteous way of life.
37. And here, indeed, if not before, was this lamentable history of the miseries of our time to have been brought to a conclusion, that I might no further discourse of the deeds of men; but that I may not be thought timid or weary. I will briefly set down the threatenings which are denounced against these five aforesaid lascivious horses, the frantic followers of Pharaoh, through whom his army is wilfully urged forward to their utter destruction in the Red Sea, and also against such others, by the sacred oracles, with whose holy testimonies the frame of this our little work is, as it were, roofed in, that it may not be subject to the showers of the envious, which otherwise would be poured thereon. Let, therefore, God's holy prophets, who are to mortal men the mouth of God, and the organ of the Holy Ghost, forbidding evils, and favouring goodness, answer for us as well now as formerly, against the stubborn and proud princes of this our age, that they may not say we menace them with such threats, and such great terrors of our own invention only, and with rash and over-zealous meddling. For to no wise man is it doubtful how far more grievous the sins of this our time are than those of the primitive age.
38. Let not, therefore, our wicked transgressors (while they do not openly sacrifice to the gods of the Gentiles) flatter themselves that they are not idolaters, whilst they tread like swine the most precious pearls of Christ under their feet.
39. But although this one example as an invincible affirmation might abundantly suffice to correct the wicked; yet, that by the mouths of many witnesses all the offences of Britain may be proved, let us pass to the rest.
40. For even now it is certain that there are some teachers inspired with a contrary spirit, preaching and affirming rather what is pleasing, however depraved, than what is true: whose words are softer than oil, and the same are darts, who say, peace, peace, and there shall be no peace to them, who persevere in their sins.
42. Wherein it is to be noted, that unjust kings are termed the princes of Sodom, for our Lord, forbidding sacrifices and gifts to be offered to him by such persons, and seeing that we greedily receive those offerings which in all nations are displeasing unto God, and to our own destruction suffer them not to be bestowed on the poor and needy, speak thus to them who, laden with riches, are likewise given to offend on this head.
43. Receive ye the true and public avoucher, witnessing, without any falsehood or flattery, the reward of your good and evil, not like the soothing humble lips of your parasites, which whisper poisons into your ears.
47. And thus far may it suffice among many, to have recited a few sentences out of the prophet Isaiah.But now with diligent ears hearken unto him, who was foreknown before he was formed in the belly, sanctified before he came out of the womb, and appointed a prophet in all nations: I mean Jeremiah, and hear what he hath pronounced of foolish people and cruel Kings.
50. What then shall now our miserable governors do, these few who found out the narrow way and left the large, were by God forbidden to pour out their prayers for such as persevered in their evils, and so highly provoked his wrath, against whom on the contrary side when they returned with all their hearts unto God (his divine Majesty being unwilling that the soul of man should perish, but calling back the castaway that he should not utterly be destroyed) the same prophets could not procure the heavenly revenge, because Jonas, when he desired the like most earnestly against the Ninevites, could not obtain it.
52. And mark ye also what blessed Hosea the prophet says of princes: "For that they have transgressed my covenant, and ordained against my law, and exclaimed, we have known thee, because thou art against Israel. They have persecuted good, as if it were evil. They have reigned for themselves and not by me; they have held a principality, neither yet have they acknowledged me."
62. This which I have spoken may suffice concerning the threats of the holy prophets: only I have thought it necessary to intermingle in this little work of mine, not only these menaces, but also a few words borrowed out of the wisdom of Solomon, to declare unto kings matters of exhortation or instruction, that they may not say I am willing to load the shoulders of men with heavy and insupportable burdens of words, but not so much as once with mine own finger (that is, with speech of consolation) to move the same. Let us therefore hear what the prophet hath spoken to rule us. "Love justice," saith he, "ye that judge the earth." This testimony alone (if it were with a full and perfect heart observed) would abundantly suffice to reform the governors of our country. For if they had loved justice, they would also love God, who is in a sort the fountain and original of all justice.
For these men without respect do tempt God, whose commandments with stubborn despite they contemn, neither yet do they keep to him their faith, unto whose oracles be they pleasing, or somewhat severe, they turn their backs and not their faces. "For perverse thoughts do separate from God," and this in the tyrants of our time very plainly appeareth. But why doth our meanness intermeddle in this so manifest a determination? Let therefore him who alone is true (as we have said) speak for us, I mean the Holy Ghost, of whom it is now pronounced, "The Holy Ghost verily will avoid the counterfeiting of discipline."
63. But let us pass over to the rest: "Hearken, (saith he) all ye kings, and understand ye; learn, ye judges of the bounds of the earth, listen with your ears who keep multitudes in awe, and please yourselves in the troops of nations. Because power is given unto you from God, and puissance from the highest, who will examine your actions, and sift your thoughts. For that when ye were ministers of his kingdom, ye have not judged uprightly, nor kept the law of justice, nor yet walked according to his will. It shall dreadfully and suddenly appear unto you, that a most severe judgment shall be given on them who govern. For to the meaner is mercy granted, but the mighty shall mightily sustain torments. For he shall have no respect of persons, who is the ruler of all, nor yet shall he reverence the greatness of any one, because he himself hath made both small and great, and care alike he hath of all; but for the stronger is at hand a stronger affliction. Unto you therefore, O kings, are these my speeches, that you may learn wisdom, and not fall away from her. For whoso observeth what things are just shall be justified, and whoso learneth what things are holy, shall be sanctified."
64. Hitherto have we discoursed no less by the oracles of the prophets, than by her own speeches with the kings of our country, being willing they should know what the prophet hath spoken, saying, "As from the face of a serpent, so fly thou from sins: if thou shalt approach unto them they will catch thee, their teeth are the teeth of a lion, such as kill the souls of men."
65. And how willingly, as one tossed on the waves of the sea, and now arrived in a desired haven, would I in this place make an end (shame forbidding me further to proceed), did I not behold such great masses of evil deeds done against God by bishops or other priests, or clerks, yea some of our own order, whom as witnesses myself must of necessity first of all stone (according unto the law) with the hard blows of words, lest I should be otherwise reproved for partiality towards persons, and then afterwards the people (if as yet they keep their decrees) must pursue with their whole powers the same execution upon them, not to their corporal death, but to the death of their vices and their eternal life with God. Yet, as I before said, I crave pardon of them, whose lives I not only praise, but also prefer before all earthly treasure, and of the which, if it may be, yet before my death I desire and thirst to be a partaker: and so having both my sides defended with the double shields of saints, and by those means invincibly strengthened to sustain all that arise against me, arming moreover my head in place of a helmet with the help of our Lord, and being most assuredly protected with the sundry aids of the prophets, I will boldly proceed notwithstanding the stones of worldly rioters fly never so fast about me.