FIGHTING BISHOPS OF THE DARK AGES
Has anyone every wondered why the bishop is a game piece on the chessboard? Chess is, after all, a game of ritualized warfare and the bishop is one of the more active pieces in the game—certainly more active than the knight, whose awkward moves generally don’t accomplish much. Well, Watson, the game’s afoot and today we shall look into the historical equivalent of the game piece—the fighting bishop.
One of the oddities of the period from the fall of Rome to Europe’s emergence from barbarism (more or less) was the phenomenon of the fighting bishop. I first encountered this interesting feature of the era some years ago, while perusing an old issue of National Geographic illustrating the Bayeux Tapestry. There on the venerable tapestry was the Right Reverend Bishop Odo gloriously bashing heads in service of his brother William the Bastard (or Conqueror, if you will) to impose Norman rule on the wicked (and free) Saxons.
It has been long standing church law that clerics are not allowed to draw blood; to get around this rule, the fighting bishop would use a club to chastise his opponents. Whether one should consider the Norman Invasion still part of the Dark Ages may be a moot point, but Bishop Odo forms a good end point for discussion of the fighting bishops, so we will begin here at the end and then go back to the beginning and end up, hopefully, somewhere in the middle—or muddle, as the case may be.
Christian Clerics getting involved in military affairs, of course, did not end with the Dark Ages. We have monastic military orders during the Crusades such as the Knights Templar, and during the Renaissance the Popes certainly did their fair share of leading armies in war; even during the American Civil War we find odd birds like the Confederate Stonewall Jackson and the Yankee General O. O. Howard who ardently professed their religiosity as they ordered men to their deaths in the thousands; there is also Southern General Leonidas Polk, an Episcopal Bishop who passed God to praise the ammunition, and apparently was as bad a general as he was a bishop. But I digress; our main concern here is primarily with the early period, when the Roman Empire was withering away in the West and the barbarian tribes rapidly becoming the dominant force in Europe. In this transitional period in particular, we find Christian clerics assuming more and more roles as leaders of the Church Militant.
The incongruity of followers of the Prince of Peace assuming military functions was not lost on some early Church fathers. As a result, the authors of some Saint’s lives had to do quite a bit of editing of the facts and creative rewriting to make their subjects conform to the saintly ideal. Medievalists are familiar with such distortions in saint’s lives, as well the gratuitous addition of fabulous incidents into the Latin hagiographies, so much so that in some quarters this genre of medieval literature is almost synonymous with unreliability. This is unfortunate, as sometimes even in the most fantastic saint’s lives may often be embedded with small nuggets of factual detail not recorded elsewhere—especially when we are dealing an era such as the fifth and sixth centuries in Britain, where contemporary documents of any kind are virtually absent. The transmitters of written material in the Dark and Middle Ages were, after all, clerics, and so their main interest lay in promoting the faith and their primary concern was in writing and copying religious texts. Political and military documents would be copied only as an afterthought, if at all. I think academics are sometimes so busy with line by line analyses of texts they forget this basic fact, which explains the disproportionate weight given to clearly unreliable narratives such as Gildas’ De Excidio et Conquestu Britanniae, which, while a valuable source, is far more homily than history. Nor is hagiography itself a dead genre, as anyone who ever attended a Catholic school can attest to.
While there are oblique references to Roman officers being converted to Christianity even in the New Testament, the first soldier-saint one can point to would be Saint George. Although more commonly associated with the fifth century and better known as the Patron Saint of Britain, in fact St. George was Palestinian by birth, serving in the eastern Roman Army in the late third century AD. He is best known for rescuing a fair maiden from a dragon—although the dragon was probably a crocodile inhabiting a marsh somewhere in the Western Desert of Egypt or Libya and the maiden may have been as young as twelve, not the nubile blonde babe as she is later portrayed.
Rising to the rank of tribune, George (or Girgis) became of favorite of the Emperor Diocletian. George earned his sainthood when, on hearing that the Emperor Diocletian had outlawed Christianity yet again, thought he could convince the prince of the folly of his ways: after repeated attempts to get his favorite tribune to renounce Christianity, however, Diocletian had him tortured and finally beheaded ca. 303 AD. He is today the patron saint, not only of England, but a host of other countries as well and is also the patron saint of Moscow, which today is much in need of protection from the folly of its rulers. St. George is also patron saint of scouts, soldiers, archers, cavalry and chivalry, as well as riders and saddlers, and before penicillin was often prayed to by those suffering syphilis to ask for his intercession. His connection with venereal disease may also be related to his military profession. He seems to have gained in importance during the fifth century, as the Roman army fell into decline and the Western Empire disintegrated. It was at this time that the story of his slaying of the dragon assumed great symbolic importance: the dragon not only becomes associated with the devil but also with barbarism and paganism in general.
In some versions of his life, St. George’s father is named Gerontius and while this Gerontius has no relation to the fifth century British generals of the same name, the similarity of the name may have been a motive for the growth of his cult in the west and especially in Britain. It should be borne in mind that the Celtic British equivalent of the Roman war god Mars was a mounted warrior with a flowing cape. Thus St. George may have served as a convenient alternative for Christian missionaries trying to wean the stubborn Britons away from their much favored native war god. At any rate, George’s preference for the divine host over the Roman emperor’s sets him as a protype of other Christians in the Roman army, especially as the western empire began to fall apart.
Saint Christopher is one saint who you may not associate with the military life. There is some question whether he existed at all, since the Church has “de-sainted” him based on the belief that his cult arose from the phrase christo-phoros—‘he who bears Christ’—found inscribed on some subterranean tombs and that this was mistaken for a proper name by later Christian hagiographers. However, when dealing with early saints and warrior clerics, the facts sometimes get so convuluted in the retelling as obscure their genuine origins. For example, the fact that he was also believed to have had the head of a dog (or dog-like beast) before his conversion further strengthened the arguments of those dubious about his existence. However, we may be dealing here with yet another linguistic error, as one version of his life holds that he was a Canaanite (i.e. Palestinian) and some Latin wit (or nitwit) took that to mean he belonged to a tribe of “canines” who were abnormally large and had dog-like heads. He is alleged to have belonged to a Roman unit called Numerus Marmaritarum, which would place it as a garrison detachment somewhere in Cyrenaica, part of modern day Libya bordering on Egypt. He was apparently also soldier under Diolcetian and was something of a reprobate as well, until he unexpectedly decided to “bear Christ,” in consequence of which he lost his “wolf’s head.” It should be pointed out that Roman signifers (standard bearers) wore a wolf-skin draped over their helmet and shoulders, so the dog head belief story is not so fantastic as it may sound to modern ears. At base, we are dealing with another Roman officer who renounced the Emperor Diocletian and his militant paganism for Holy Mother Church; in effect he exchanged bearing the Emperor’s standard for bearing the standard of Christianity.
When Constantine the Great, the Roman general based in Britain, seized power, the Christian religion was finally allowed to come out of the shadows. Before this, the church had more or less been structured rather loosely, with no centralized administration. This made good sense at the time, especially when the Imperial government could suddenly institute a program of suppression and execute Church leaders willy-nilly. Without a head to cut off, the early Church was like a Hydra—for each Church leader the emperor executed, two more would sprout up to replace him. However, with Constantine’s official sanction of Christianity, Church leaders—the bishops—began to accumulate more authority to their person, and became “princes of the church.” In time it led to the bishop of Rome claiming leadership of the whole Church as the heir of Peter, a distinction which other Orthodox branches of Christianity still dispute. With greater spiritual authority, inevitably the bishops also began to accrue temporal authority as well, all the more so as the Imperial government became weak and ineffective and barbarian tribes, no longer held at bay along the Rhine and Danube borders, or the chilly regions beyond Roman Britain, started roaming the interior of the empire virtually at will.
St. Martin of Tours was what we would call an “army brat”: his father had been a tribune in the Imperial army, stationed in what is today Pavia, Italy. Martin, according to late Roman law, was also obliged to become a soldier and eventually his unit was posted to Amiens in Gaul. The story goes that one day the Roman officer Martin was passing by a poor beggar, who was so destitute he lacked even clothing to cover his nakedness. Taking pity on the homeless man, Martin tore his crimson officers cloak in twain and gave him half. The officer’s cloak was apparently a great source of pride to Roman military commanders and seemed to have been imbued with a certain symbolic signficance. Martin eventually resigned his command and became a hermit at first, although he was eventually persuaded to accept the office of bishop (some say he was tricked into it) and spent much of his career as bishop fighting heresy and paganism. He didn’t do any bashing of heads, but his career as bishop did involve as much politics as it did spiritual work, for now doctinal issues as often as not became entangled in Imperial politics and conversely, theological disputes would inevitably bleed over into political and military conflicts.
During the course of the fourth century the Western Empire faced many dire challenges, including more than a few usurpers and serious barbarian incursions on various borders, the worst being the annihilation of a Roman field army at Adrianople in 495. But the Empire had suffered military reverses over the centuries and had somehow muddled through. Everywhere (or almost everywhere) the barbarians had been turned back, bribed to go away, or recruited to defend the realm. Imperial tax collectors went back to fleecing the lower classes; the patrician class clamored for more and more special considerations, exemptions and undeserved emoluments from the Emperor and his advisors, while corrupt officials skimmed graft from one appointment after another; it was, in short, business as usual. Yet, within only a few short years, the Western Empire would face blow after blow it could not recover from and begin a decline which would prove inevitable and irrevocable.
Two bishops in particular stand out in this downward spiral, both of whom were distinguished by their military influence: Germanus of Auxerre and Saint Severinus. Both bishops were pious men and ostensibly zealous in their pursuit of spiritual goals, yet both became intimately involved in military affairs of the day, acting as de facto military commanders—and apparently better in that role than many commanders still officially in the Roman army.
Germanus is best known through the vita written by Constantius of Lyon around 480 AD, which is as close to a contemporary account as one can hope for in this era and is fairly credible overall, given the generally unreliable reputation of hagiographies. Constantius’ list of “miracles” are not beyond the bounds of believability and in particular he provides insights into the good bishop’s mission to Britain in 428-29, although he is frustratingly vague in some details of it. Another vita of Germanus is only known from some brief references in Nennius, which academics have generally dismissed, but which this author feels may yet yield valuable details for the period of 441-442 not otherwise recorded. Germanus began as a lawyer and was apparently a very good ambulance (or is it chariot?) chaser, so much so that the Imperial government put him in command of the shore defences for northern Gaul as Dux tractus Armoricani et Nervicani . He was apparently very good at this job as well, but fell into a dispute with the local bishop, Amator, who feared Germanus would kill him. Amator did something unusual: he lured the irate general into his cathedral and then forced him to take holy orders and appointed him bishop to succeed him. As strange as this action was, it apparently had the suitable result and Germanus, raised by devout Christian parents, took his new office quite seriously and, in contrast to many patrician nobles of the period, was generous to the poor and practised great austerity. What Gemanus’ wife thought of all this is not recorded. In any case, he became bishop in 418 and it was in this role that he was sent to Britain in 428 to combat the heresy of Pelagianism, of which that island was the seat.
While he ostensibly visited Britain on a religious mission, one cannot avoid the suspicion that his visit had political and military goals as well. Briton had been abandoned by the Empire in 410, having been a hotbed of rebellion and the home of several failed attempt to usurp the throne of the Western empire; but there was a popular uprising raging in the northern provinces of Gaul, which may have been aided by some Britons, or at least survivors of the last British usurper’s army, Constantine III, and their cousins across the channel were suspected of aiding and abetting them. Pelagius had been a British theologian who essentially argued for a more egalitarian structure to the church, versus the Augustinian vision of it, which argued for a more hierarchical structure where the bishop of Rome—the Pope—was its head. The Augustinian innovation had become accepted as the new orthodoxy while Pelagian’s essentially traditional viewpoint was condemned as heresy. More importantly, the Imperial government favored the Augustinians and so the Pelagians became political as well religious outcasts—except in Britain.
Germanus travelled by ship to Britain, along with fellow Gaul, Bishop Lupus, who, it should be noted, also had a brother who had left the army to become a “prince” of the Church. The voyage to Britain is notable, less for what is said about it, than what is not. The vessel encountered a storm—which Germanus miraculously halted, of course—but no mention is made of any barbarian pirates bothering their transit; nor are we told under what flag their ship sailed. Was it a Roman vessel? Gaulish? Or was the ship that took them to Britain a British ship? Was it a garbage scow, a fat merchanman or a warship? Did it make a regular run back and forth the channel; or was this a one time voyage (not likely)? The vessel may well have been a British ship allied to the new sovereign of the island; this would have made the most sense; but here, as elsewhere in the narrative, details are lacking. In any case, while the saint’s lives portray his religious mission as a success, the circumstantial evidence points in the opposite direction. What was a success—and an overwhelming one at that—was his defeat of a barbarian invasion in western Britain—what is now Wales.
Again, crucial details are lacking, but the local commander there—Bran or Brennius—seems to have lost his head, quite literally: it was chopped off. Whether Bran died in northern Wales or across the sea in Ireland is uncertain, but the result was a barbarian invasion with no experienced commander to lead the surviving British forces there. With the apparent approval of the British government in London—now led by the Ameradaur (Emperor or Overking) known as Vortigern (or Guothiern), Germanus took command of the troops there. It is doubtful that they were just a few idle youths hanging around the streetcorners of Chester (a former legionary fortress) but Constantius is again vague on this point; what we know is that this British army was conveniently at hand for Germanus to lead. While one tradition holds that the town of Mold was the site of the ensuing battle, most scholars who have studied the event believe that the small village of Llangollen was the site of it and one has only to view a few photos of the locale to appreciate that if so, Germanus was indeed a highly skilled general. The River Dee comes down from the mountains about here and the valley’s sides become steep, funneling any invading force into a killing ground ideal for an ambush. Adjacent to the small hamlet is Castel Dinas Bran, the traditional site of Bran’s military headquarters which, even in the fifth century, had to have been a formidable defensive position.
How Germanus lured the barbarian army up into the Dee Valley pass is not related, but clearly the general turned bishop had to have employed some strategem to get them to ascend the river valley at this point. Having been schooled in classical art of Rhetoric, Germanus exhorted his army, combining faith and oratory, to fight the pagan hordes. Apparently the British army itself was mostly pagan, as many of them were baptised by Germanus himself. Thus getting right with God, the British army defeated the barbarians in a “bloodless” victory—the Alleluia Victory—on Easter Sunday. That the battle was “bloodless” on the British side is not beyond the bounds of credibility, but it was certainly not bloodless on the barbarians’ side and the good bishop leading his good Christian followers in a bloodbath on the Lord’s Day does not seem to have bothered Germanus overmuch—if at all. In any case, it was rightly hailed as a divine miracle, to be added to the long list of such divine interventions attributed to Germanus. There is a sequel to this great victory; after the Saxon rebellion in 441-442, and the subsequent rebellion by the British against Vortigern, Germanus again returned to Britain to reconcile the warring British factions. This second visit has been the subject of much dispute, but the essential aspect of it relevent to our present discussion is that Germanus now served as “king-maker”—convincing the discredited British sovereign to abdicate peacefully and thereby allowing the warring Romano-British factions to agree on a successor and unite against their mutinous Saxon mercenaries.
The English Catholic writer Hilaire Belloc once weighed in on the good Bishop and his Pelagian mission of 428-9. It is worth quoting, as it summarizes, albeit with tongue in cheek, this fighting bishop’s legacy quite nicely:
And with his stout Episcopal staff
So thoroughly whacked and banged
The heretics all, both short and tall —
They rather had been hanged.
Bishop Severinus, whose floruit in the fifth century was somewhat later than Germanus, nevertheless displayed a number of similarities to Germanus in his role on another forsaken border of the now rapidly disintegrating western Empire. Here again, we know a bit about the good bishop due to a relatively reliable vita, this time penned by Eugippius. Severinus was born either in southern Italy or North Africa in 410 AD, the year that the Goths sacked Rome. Aside from the fact that he came from a high status patrician family, his early years are obscure—perhaps deliberately so—although he may have spent some time among the desert saints in the East. He appears along the Danube border region soon after the death of Attila around 453, an area by now ravaged repeatedly and where surviving pockets of the Roman populace were holed up in walled cities, terrified to venture forth to do their daily work and errands and where famine prevailed.
Severinus went about the two Panonias and Noricum, exhorting the faithful, convincing the wealthy to share their hidden stores of food with the starving and encouraging the surviving garrisons to resist the barbarian “robbers.” One tribune, Mamertinus, so encouraged by Severinus, pleaded that his men were poorly armed. Nonetheless, Severinus persisted and the tribune promised to pursue the looters out of faith in Severinus’ miracle working abilities, and in fact succeeded in defeating them. In one case, Severinus organized the defense of one such beleaguered town, exhorting the inhabitants to man the walls throughout the night, thereby spoiling the plans of the barbarians lurking in a nearby wood. Eugippius also mentions one surviving Roman garrison in passing, at Passau, which would have been the 9th Batavians, who while still intact at this late date, but had not been paid in a long time.
Severinus apparently won over the Rugian tribe and persuaded them to help protect the surviving Christians of the region, in defiance of more powerful pagan tribes who were hostile to the faith. As his renown as seer grew, Severinus earned the respect of many other barbarian leaders, apparently prophesying to Odoacer, the Herulian Goth, that he would one day be king of Rome. One suspects that if Severinus did indeed prophesy Odaoacer’s ascendancy in Italy, it was more out of a desire to rid the Danube provinces of his presence than to any divine vision.
Severinus established havens for refugees displaced by war, set up monasteries as islands of civilization and yet he himself lived very simply as a hermit, although he seems to have established a de facto theocracy in the abandoned Roman provinces of Noricum and the two Panonias. Despite his asceticism and piety, Severinus’ astute diplomatic, motivational and organizational skills speak loudly of a Roman patrician who had formerly held high military or administrative offices earlier in life, although the history of those early years seems to have been deliberately suppressed.
St. Padarn is another fifth century “saint” whose career definitely spanned the military life; whether he was in fact ever a cleric or bishop, as later Church tradition averred, is highly problematical. Padarn appears in the regnal lists of the Votadini of northern-eastern Britain, who throughout the fifth century served as federated allies of the unified British polity below Hadrian’s Wall. Most of this regnal list consists of Celtic sounding names, but in this list pop up three Roman sounding names, albeit much garbled, with Padarn being the middle one. Unfortunately there are no accurate dates given to the reigns, but this run of three Roman names is paralleled by a similar occurrence in the regnal list of the Alt Clut rulers, who served a similar function on the western end of the Wall. Here there is one commander specifically called “Clement the Roman” and his predecessor is described as having served under “Constantine.” As a result, some have mistakenly placed this run of three Roman commanders in the early fourth century, but this is certainly far too early: more likely, the Constantine in question was Constantine III, the last British usurper, who died in 412. If correct, by analogy that would place Padarn (or rather Paternus) in command of the Votadini tribe sometime during the early decades of the fifth century.
Paternus was distinguished by the epithet “piusrut,” which is apparently a garbled Latin phrase meaning “Red Cape.” As we noted with St. Martin, the Roman officer’s cape was a highly prized symbol of office and the epithet is taken as an indication that he was in origin an officer in the Roman army. St. Padarn is mentioned in a number of later hagiographies, and he is also connected with King Arthur. That the saint was one and the same as the Roman officer Paternus is due to the mention of his red cape, which over time became imbued with magical powers. It was, in fact, one of the Thirteen Treasures of Britain and the story is told that the “tyrant” Arthur coveted the cape and attempted to take it by force, but was foiled by the grace of God. While we may discount the story of Arthur’s theft of the cape as a case of accretion to the more famous legendary hero, it does indicate that at one time Paternus was a highly regarded warrior in his own right. Whether Paternus was ever in fact a cleric of any type is problematical: it is not impossible that, like Germanus, he renounced the military life to become a soldier of Christ in later life; at least later generations believed him to be a saint and bishop.
While there are many other fighting bishops one could discuss, we have gone overlong already. Perhaps it would be good to close with one cleric who, while not quite so illustrious as the above, enjoyed a solid reputation as a warrior bishop. St. Finchú (or Chua-Finn) of Brigown lived in sixth century Ireland and apparently developed quite a pugnacious reputation among the many kings of Ireland. Many were the tales told of Finnchu and I’d be a liar if I said I knew even a half of them.
One time the bishop was summoned by the King of Meath, who was being troubled by British pirates. On his arrival at Tara, word came of a new British inroad and Finchu advised the king that all, both laymen and clerics, turn right-handwise and march against the intruders, with the result that they slew them, burnt their ships, and made a mound of their garments. Returning to Munster, Finnchu was next upon called to repel an attack from the north, the wicked queen of Ulaidh having goaded her husband into invading Munster to provide territory for her sons. The King of Munster’s nobles advised him: ‘let us sent to the slaughterous warrior to the south of us, even to Bishop Finchú of Brigown.’ So Finchú comes with his crosier, which was named Cennchathach (‘head-battler’). The King of Munster wanted to borrow Cenn-chathach, but the saint refused to give it up, in order that ‘on himself might be the glory of routing the foe,’ which in due course occurred. On another occasion, Finnchu was called on to lead the men of Munster against the mighty Clanna Neill. Losing their courage at the sight of the might of the Neill Clanna camp, Finnchu needed to exhort them to courage to fight, which they did and proved victorious.
As is clear from many of these tales of fighting bishops, the degree to which they actually participated in combat could vary considerably, from quite active service to serving more in a morale boosting or organizational role. The Dark Age scholar Wendy Davis has pointed out that in Medieval Irish there was considerable confusion between terms for clerics and military leaders. Conversely, some of the scanty accounts of bishops being the principle force behind the founding of the British colonies of Britoña and Brittany should probably be taken with a grain of salt as well: they may well have been secular or military leaders who only later became identified as saints or bishops. Even the old reprobate Vortigern ended up becoming venerated as a Breton saint. Along the Wall in northern Britain, recent archaeology has gotten far better at defining signs of habitation in the soil and stratigraphy that were overlooked by earlier generations of archaeologists. In particular, some northern forts which were assumed to have been abandoned turn out not to be so. Indeed, the former headquarter of the garrison commander was sometimes converted into a church—a clear indication of the growing role of the church in the defense of the realm.
One writer has averred that J. R. R. Tolkien’s character Aragorn in the Lord of the Rings trilogy was based on the Saxon King Oswald, yet another warrior saint. This may well be true, but it also brings to mind another character from Tolkien’s medieval fantasy: Gandalf. If one analyses the actions of that character he resembles very closely the ideal archtype of a fighting bishop: organizing defenses, motivating leaders and military commanders, performing an occasional miracle or exorcism; bashing heads with his crozier as needed and zooming across the game-board of medieval warfare as needed. Check and mate Dark Lord; Gandalf wins the game.
Hic Fecit CKC
Copyright 2015 © Christopher Kiernan Coleman