Germanus and the Beginnings of Independent Britain II: Germanus and St. Collen
In the previous essay on Germanus of Auxerre, we asserted the basic historicity of Constantius’ hagiography of the famous Gaulish bishop and while wishing the biographer had been more detailed when it came to his account of the bishop’s sojourn in Britain, I think there is now a general consensus that, as inconvenient as it is for some versions of modern historian’s reconstruction of fifth century British history, his visit in AD 428/429 is fundamentally historical.
I would, however, question Constantius’ basic premise that Germanus’ visit to the British Isles was solely a pastoral visit, to correct what he asserts were heretical beliefs in the British Church. That may well have been the official cover story at the time, but we should remember that large numbers of former Roman Army officers became clergymen during the fifth century—or at least were later remembered as such. Moreover, on the continent we have a number of documented cases where the local bishops and other clerics concerned themselves with political and military affairs, organizing and leading the resistance to barbarians, while what passed for Imperial officialdom at that time either fled, cowered in their beds or made common cause with the invaders. It was a time when the best and the brightest in the Roman Army and government were joining the Catholic Church. Unspoken in this movement was, perhaps, the utter disgust on the part of many civic minded Romans with the Imperial government in the West.
So, when the former Dux Tractus Armoricani et Nervicani, who would have had the equivalent command in Gaul as the Comes Litus Saxonum in Britain, came to visit Britannia, we may question how much of his tour of the realm was pastoral and how much military-political.
Another issue, touched on previously, was exactly where Germanus obtained an army to defeat the barbarian armies rampaging unchecked on the west coast. Certainly Germanus would have tried to scrape together whatever remnants were left after their previous commander, Comes Brennius/Bran, lost his head in a punitive expedition to Ireland. However, in analyzing the locale where the battle allegedly occurred, I find there is also a hint as to where Germanus may have obtained further reinforcements.
Llangollan is a quaint village located at a strategic crossing of the River Dee, just below a strategic pass, with an imposing fort overlooking the entire vale. It’s doubtful that it was all that much different in the fifth century. As is the custom in Welsh, when one combines words to form a toponym, a consonant or syllable will be modified to create the amalgamated word. Thus Llangollan is derived from two words: Lllan + Collen. Llan is a common toponym indicating the location of a church or abbey; St. Collen is an obscure Welsh saint very poorly represented even in the Celtic areas of Britain and about whom only a few Dark Age myths are told. These myths, however, provide hints as to who the alleged saint really may have been.
Ostensibly, St. Collen settled in the vicinity of Llangollen some time in the early sixth century or early seventh century (chronology is very fluid when it comes to Dark Age saints). In a future entry I will go into more detail regarding a similar Dark Age “saint” named Padarn, aka Paternus, who, it turns out, was in fact really a Roman or Post-Roman military commander. I propose that the real St. Collen was similarly a Roman or Post-Roman officer active in the first half of the fifth century.
According to the often confusing and sometimes bizarre hagiographies, St. Collen had connections with Orleans in Gaul and Langolen in Brittany; he was apparently a soldier at some point, since he ostensibly fought in single combat at the behest of the Pope against a barbarian king, whose tribe converted to Christianity after being defeated by Collen. Collen returned to Britain and then at one point was living—or posted as an officer—at Glastonbury Tor, where he had a supernatural encounter with the lord of the underworld. Later, when he sought to become a hermit at Llangollen, he again had to fight a “giant.” Apparently this peace-loving saint engaged in quite a few military contests in his spiritual wanderings. All of which seems to contradict his pacific calling as cleric.
While all these tales should be taken with more than a grain of salt, what I would take away from them a core truth that the obscure saint had a more a military than contemplative background. Only a few churches were ever dedicated to this obscure saint, whose very existence as an actual saint I aver is questionable.
In truth, the name Collen is about the only thing about the saint I would take as being completely reliable, for Collen is one of the many variant spellings for the famed fifth century military leader best known as Coel Hen–our modern “Old King Cole.” Other variant spellings for this once famous leader are Kyle, Colling, Coyll, Cullen and probably a few others that have yet to be recognized. Although precious little factual information is known about Coel, scholars are reasonably certain that he was the “last Roman commander of the northern British defenses”—or Dux Britanniarum, who held command of the garrisons along Hadrian’s wall and the allied federate detachments on either side of it. The fact that Coel is mentioned as the founder of a number of northern kingdoms points to the fact that he was not only the “last” Roman commander of the north but also the first British commander of the northern defenses.
If, around 428-429, the western defenses in Britain were seriously threatened by a large barbarian alliance invading from out of the Irish Sea, it is not unreasonable that not only would the unified British government recruit Germanus to take command there, but also draw on troops from the northern command to reinforce the failing western frontier defenses. The forty days of Lent would certainly have been ample time to bring up reinforcements and supplies with which to counter the barbarian invasion. While Germanus may indeed have been appointed Dux Prolil by Emperor Vitalinus (Vortigern), I would posit that Coel Hen would have served as Germanus’ second in command at the Alleluia Victory, in charge of the northern troops brought down to aid in the campaign for the western marches.
Of course, when it comes to reconstructing fifth century British history, most of what passes for established fact is really just a series of inferences buttressed by speculation with a smattering of highly speculative etymologies thrown in to sound authoritative; but I would assert that positing Collen as Coel/Colling is as reasonable an inference as any–and consistent with the known facts. It also helps bring what Constantius would have us believe to be a divine miracle into the realm of plausible reality.
Now that we have tidied up these details of Germanus’ first visit, in our next entry will take a closer look at Germanus’ second visit and the questions associated with that as well–issues even more problematical than those surrounding his first visit.