Germanus and the Beginnings of Independent Britain

Germanus Auxerre

Germanus of Auxerre’s Life, writen by Constantius of Lyon around 480 or so, stands as an important document for the study of post Roman Britain—more properly the Brittonic Period or Age of Arthur.  As such, one wishes it were more detailed regarding his two trips to the Misty Isles.  Not surprisingly when it comes to any source relating to our knowledge of fifth century Britain that conflicts with their a priori assumptions, the Minimalists have been hard at work erasing the blackboard, as it were, and trying to “debunk” it as a legitimate source of history.  Fortunately, unlike their take-down of other important sources and personalities, the academic community does not seem to have gone so willingly into that good night when it comes to Germanus and his main biographer.

As noted in a previous blog essay, saint’s lives in general have a reputation for unreliability and alleged fabrication, their goal being mainly to fortify the soul and strengthen the faith and not to relate political or military history.  While we’re at it, we should also note that, despite the Minimalists’ attempts to enshrine Gildas De Excidio as the prime source for fifth century history, the same criticism could—should—be leveled at his essay.  A homily is an argumentative essay intended to prove a spiritual point and while, like the saint’s lives, one may often extract historical tidbits from it in passing, that was not its intended function when written.  That the Venerable Bede also misused Gildas’ work for polemical purposes has given later generations of historians ever since the green light to do so as well.  That saint’s vitas are often peppered with miraculous events often causes modern reductionist scholars to reject them out of hand as well and of course Constantius’ vita is no different in this regard.  So before I go into criticizing Germanus and his biographers, let me start out by defending them.

 

Germanus as portrayed in the movie Arthur, about the only aspect of the movie that reflected historical reality.
Germanus as portrayed in the movie Arthur, about the only aspect of the movie that reflected historical reality.

Insofar as the miraculous events in Constantius’ vita go, while they are supernatural in nature, when shorn of their supernatural veneer they are far less fantastic than many such hagiographies.  While crossing from Gaul to Britain, (chapter 13), the ship Germanus and his companions are in is hit by a terrible storm, roused up by demons who were angered at the presence of the pious bishop on the open sea.  Apparently Germanus, who as a former soldier, was not easily panicked, decided to take a nap at that point below decks.  The storm got even worse and both sailors and passengers were terrified and the vessel was “navigated by prayer and not by muscles.”  Bishop Lupus, who was also along on the mission, woke Germanus and implored him to intervene.  Germanus, in god’s name, chided the ocean for misbehaving and then, presumably reaching for his chrism bottle which was part of a priest’s stock and trade, anointed the violent seas, calming it with soothing prayers to heaven.  The demons of the air were defeated and the winds calmed and became favorable and the currents of the sea also became cooperative and the ship arrived in Britain without further incident.

 

St. Germanus Calms the Tempest fresco from Vizelay.
St. Germanus Calms the Tempest fresco from Vizelay.

Now, on the face of it, that a ship at sea should run into foul weather is not all that unusual.  Presumably, the voyage was undertaken sometime in the winter or early spring of 428/29 and storms descending from out of the north would not have been all that unusual.  That the English Channel (as it’s called today) should be hazardous to ships is no surprise: during the D-Day Invasion in 1944 the invading fleet ran afoul of one bad storm; the Spanish Armada in Queen Elizabeth’s day was broken up and destroyed by another, lacking a saintly bishop to intervene on their behalf.  The bit about pouring oil on the sea to calm it is also not so fantastic: we have records of it being done in the nineteenth century, so it is a folk belief of great longevity—whether or not it was of any practical benefit.  That Constantius is here relating a real event is not to be doubted.

On landing in Britain, Germanus and Lupus engage in public debate with some unnamed supporters of Pelagius’ theology.  A large crowd gathers and according to Constantius, Germanus and Lupus’ eloquence and superior theology win the day, with the populace serving as both spectators and jury.  Germanus had been given a classical Liberal education as a youth, which included the art of rhetoric; he had also studied Roman law, and was well experienced in arguing a case in public.  However, the great success attributed to his public debate (or debates) with the British Pelagians is something that should be taken with a grain of salt.  Constantius was, after all, not going to report a failure or mediocre outcome about his subject.  Historians tend to regard Germanus’ religious mission as less than successful; that the Pelagian clergy and their egalitarian theology still held sway in much of Britain after Germanus’s visit.  Moreover, there is a strong suspicion that despite what Constantius says, that the good clerics mission to Britain had strong political and military overtones and that the religious mission was a cover for a tacitly Imperial Roman diplomatic mission.

 

Diploma of the Dux Tractus Armoricani et Nervicani , the position which Germanus held as Roman officer
Diploma of the Dux Tractus Armoricani et Nervicani , the position which Germanus held as Roman officer

Germanus had been Dux Tractus Armoricani et Nervicani before assuming the role of cleric and as such he exercised military and political power along the coasts of northern Gaul facing Britain.  In Armorica there had been a popular uprising in the early decades of the fifth century which lingered on for some time and which the Imperial government often dealt harshly with.  It may well have been that the independent Britons were suspected of aiding and abetting that part of Gaul which they had a long association with against the Emperor.  After all, Britain had the reputation of being the “home of tyrants” who threatened Imperial power on multiple occasions.  The British central government, lately organized with a central leader, or “Overking,” may also have requested some kind of assistance in dealing with barbarian threats to the independent polity and Germanus’ mission may well have been the answer.  We at least may allow that Germanus had more than one goal in mind in visiting the sundered provinces of Britannia.

At this point in the narrative (chapter 15) a man “tribunician rank” steps forward from the crowd with his blind daughter and asks both the Pelagians and Germanus and Lupus to cure her.  The Pelagians are unable to do so; Germanus places a “reliquary” on her eyes and succeeds in restoring her sight.  We cannot know whether this was a real event or no; all we can say is that Christian saints are frequently attributed with possessing miraculous power; that Germanus, have had a very thorough education, may also have possessed some medical knowledge as well from his Greek tutors is not beyond the bounds of possibility.  More important to historians is the casual mention of a British official who is ranked as “tribune.”  Unfortunately, the rank of tribune could as easily be a civilian as a military rank and Constantius was unconcerned with such details; regardless, it is evidence that the British had not fallen into anarchy and that civilian and/or political institutions had survived its separation from the empire.  The fact that the theological debate occurred in an urban setting is also prima facie evidence of the continuity of town life as well.  The Britain Germanus visited in 429 was not a wasteland.

Similarly, on a return from a pilgrimage to the site of the British martyr St. Alban (which was located in a thriving post-Roman town) Germanus injured his foot and was laid up in an unnamed town—further evidence of continued urban life.  A fire broke out, which miraculously spared the injured bishop’s residence.  That the populace may have worked more diligently to stop the spread of the fire due to having the bishop in their midst was not considered by his hagiographer even if we may: again, we have a miracle which when shorn of its spiritual trappings is an entirely credible event.  That the biographer mentions in passing that the houses had thatched roofs which made them highly flammable is another important piece of information that is offhandedly related by the biographer.

Of course the greatest of Germanus’s British miracles is the one of greatest historical import: the Alleluia Victory (chapters 17-18).  At this point we may transition from defender of the faith to critic, or at least of Constantius’ version of it, but first we must contest those who would see his account as a total fabrication.  As is often the case, the Minimalists dismiss the narrative as a fabrication without citing any real proof of their assertions.  They are entitled to their opinions, but opinion is not fact, still less is it history.  It has been observed, however, that the British sections of Constantius’ life are far less detailed than those sections relating to Germanus’ life and career on the continent.  When Constantius wrote, Bishop Lupus was still living and it is surmised that he was the main source of this section, whereas there were numerous other sources available to Constantius for the other aspects of Germanus’ life and career.  When Constantius was writing, Bishop Lupus had to have been up in years and it is likely that details of the voyages to Britain had faded from his memory quite a bit; this does not negate their underlying veracity, but it does leave quite a few gaps in the narrative we would wish had been related in more detail.

 

A view of Llangollen from the heights of Castel Dinas Bran, a medieval castle which overlays the site of the Dark Age citadel of Bran the "Blessed" who would have been the regional commander for the British before he got his head chopped off by the Irish.
A view of Llangollen from the heights of Castel Dinas Bran, a medieval castle which overlays the site of the Dark Age citadel of Bran the “Blessed” who would have been the regional commander for the British before he got his head chopped off by the Irish.

As to the location of the Alleluia Victory, we are told simply that it is a valley enclosed by steep mountains with a swift running stream or river nearby.  The town of Mold in Flintshire has sometimes been ascribed as the site of the battle, in a field a mile west of the town called Maes Garman (“field of Germanus”), but while it is close to a bay which may well have served as the landing spot for a barbarian army, my understanding is that the site of the open field does not fit the description given us by Constantius.  It’s identification as the battlefield dates back to a monument erected there in the eighteenth century.  It may well have been the site of a battle in the dark ages, just not this particular one.  The site of Llangollen is generally preferred as the location for Germanus’ battle and an analysis of maps and photos of the area shows that it perfectly fits the description.  At times even southeastern Britain’s lowlands have been put forward as the location of the battle, mainly, I gather, because it is close to the Saxon Shore; but the topography in that part of Britain is all wrong.

 

Dinas Bran in the background with the River Dee in foreground.  Painting by famous British landscape artist Turner.
Dinas Bran in the background with the River Dee in foreground. Painting by famous British landscape artist Turner.

No, Llangollen does seem to fit the bill and it is my sense that most scholars agree on it as the site—assuming they even agree that the battle occurred.  Analyzing the photos and maps of the vicinity, however, several things are clear.  One is that Germanus was a brilliant tactician; the terrain was ideal for a battle favoring the defender.  The other thing that is clear is that Constantius’ narrative was deficient in a number of respects.  He tells us that the British, afraid to venture out of their camps, asked the bishops for aid and that Germanus was appointed dux proelil (‘general for this battle’).  Armies do not just appear out of nowhere: they need to be mustered and more importantly trained.  That the British army had already been gathered together means someone had to have ordered their assembly and the mountain pass at Llangollen would not have been the place to do it.  Further downstream and closer to the bay where the River Dee empties into the Irish Sea is the city of Chester—a former legionary fortress and in the early fifth century its walls would certainly have been intact.  Constantius implies that the period of Lent was taken up by Germanus instructing the army in the Christian faith; while I would not doubt that the general turned bishop did a lot of sermonizing and converting during the forty days of Lent, I would suggest that he was doing even more equipping, drilling and training of his army during that period.

 

A modern rendition of the Alleluia Victory.
A modern rendition of the Alleluia Victory.

Constantius makes mention of using some lightly armed troops as scouts and that the barbarians thinking the Britons praying in their camps were unprepared and could be easily overcome.  I would suggest that after training his troops, Germanus marched them up country to terrain he had scouted out as the site for his decisive battle and then lured the barbarians away from the open plains and up into the mountainous defile where the Dee ran swiftly downhill.  Constantius describes the barbarian force as being composed of “Saxons and Picts” and here again we should take what the hagiographer says with a bit of skepticism.  If the battle was indeed in the mountainous regions of western Britain, a Saxon incursion would have been unlikely.  When Constantius wrote in 480, the Saxons were indeed the Britons main enemy, as were the Picts: in 429, however, on the western coast of Britain it would have been more likely that it was a force of Irish (Scotti) and Picts; if the Saxons were present at all, they were likely as mercenary soldiers in the British army.

Similarly, when Constantius describes the battle as a “bloodless” victory, we can also be a bit skeptical.  Certainly it is possible that the British army had few, if any, serious casualties, but I sincerely doubt that the Britons did not aid the enemy retreat along with sword, spear and arrow and that on the barbarian side the battle was anything but “bloodless.”  Some modern historians have tried to discredit the battle as a real event because it bears a striking similarity to certain passages in the Old Testament.  That the general turned bishop should turn to the bible for inspiration is hardly surprising: General Allenby did likewise during World War I when he conquered Palestine and Syria.  Similarly, Stonewall Jackson often resorted to the bible for both spiritual and military inspiration during the Civil War.  Neither of those general’s victories were fictitious; nor are the modern Israeli army’s, for that matter.

I do find it curious, however that the stone lined Dee River was shallow enough to use for baptizing his army just before the Picts and their allies drown in it in their haste to escape the trap set for them by Germanus.  I would suggest the river was in spring flood on Easter and that after the victory, the pagan contingents of the British army were persuaded by the “miracle” of Germanus to accept baptism—after the river had gone down to normal levels, of course.

The issue of where the British army was drawn from is another unfortunate blank spot in the Constantius narrative.  That the citadel of Dinas Bran overlooks the vale of Llangollen cannot have been coincidence; the legionary fortress of nearby Chester would also likely have had a residual garrison of some substance.  Of course, what became of the previous military commander of the district—who may have called Brennius or Bran—is not mentioned, although the account of a British Bran invading Ireland and having his head chopped off in consequence, may explain both the lack of a local commander and why the Irish chose to invade at that location.  That with a retaliatory invasion immanent, the unified British state may have temporarily drawn troops from farther north is also something which should be considered.  Unfortunately, these are among the many things which Constantius was not interested in when he wrote his biography and must remain speculative.  I put them out there for your consideration.

 

OOPS! That's not Germanus of Auxerre, fighting bishop, or is it?
OOPS! That’s not Germanus of Auxerre, fighting bishop, or is it?

For what we do know of Germanus first and second trips to Britain, however, we must be grateful to Constantius of Lyon.  That Bishop Germanus’ military and political influence on the course of independent Britain’s history was great should not be doubted, even if we would like to have had more of the blanks filled in for us.  In the end, his visits to Britain did not so much mark the end of Roman Britain as they did the beginning of the Brittonic Period in the island’s history, a period in which the groundwork for Great Britain as we know it was laid.

C. Kiernan Coleman hic fecit

Copyright © 2015

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Author: Christopher Kiernan Coleman

I am a freelance author, speaker, film producer, historian and observor of events past, present and future. I received my bachelors degree at St. Anselm College and pursued my graduate work at the University of Chicago. I currently have six books in print, including one bio of Abraham Lincoln. My latest book in print is Ambrose Bierce and the Period of Honorable Strife, published by University of Tennessee Press. I have also published numerous articles in the popular press, as well as scholarly journals. My prior work as film & tv producer garnered a number of film & tv festival awards, including the Gabriel Award. I have additional book projects in progress, including one which looks at the origins of mechanized warfare and the roots of modern Islamic fundamentalist politics, as well as several projects dealing with Dark Age and Arthurian history and archaeology.

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