Once upon a time all crows were white; did you know this?
That venerable gentleman Chaucer tells the tale of Phoebus, whom some call Apollo, who once had a lady love whom he kept in his earthly home and whom he loved so dear. He also had a raven in a golden cage in that golden palace, as white as the snow, for in those days all Ravens and crows were white and could sing as beautifully as any known songbird. And he taught the crow to understand the language of humans as well and to talk in human speech.
Yet, as well as he treated his lady love and as much as he thought she loved him, she would not, she could not be true. She took a lover, not half as handsome as Phoebus, and no sooner would he leave to do his sunny work, than her lover came sneaking in the back door. The raven saw all that transpired but said not a word; but when Phoebus returned home he cried “cuckoo, cuckoo, cuckoo.”
“Why do you cry out so, byrd?” quoth Phoebus. “Why syngest thow the cuckold’s song? Allas, what song is this!” In his heart, Phoebus knew what the white raven was telling him.
Said the Raven, “by God, I sing not amis Phoebus.”
And Phoebus saw from the raven’s look and his words that the Raven told true. Then wrath replaced adoration in his heart and the flaming Phoebus seized his golden bow and arrow and went to his unfaithful mistress and her lover and both of them he slew. But Phoebus was not grateful for the Raven telling its master of the treachery and lechery of his beloved. With his divine powers he turned the white bird’s feathers black and his voice that had been sweeter than a nightingales, he made hoarse and harsh forevermore. And that is why to this day the raven and his kin are black as night and caw and croak and are doomed to feast on dead flesh for their meals instead of the sweetmeats and other treats that Phoebus once gave them.
What has all this to do with Bran? Well, nothing to be honest, but it tells a bit about crows and ravens and their brother blackbirds. They are sometimes despised and shunned as carrion beasts, but at other times revered and feared, for not only do they feast on the flesh of those who die in battle, but they seem preternaturally intelligent for beasts of the air. They do not only show up after battle, but they have been observed gathering before the start of battle as if to know ahead of time that a battle is to be fought. Moreover, in elder times they acted in concert with wolves, scouting ahead of a pack for prey for the wolves to attack; then they would report back to the herd and when the wolves finally downed their prey, the ravens greedily shared in spoils, cawing in triumph over the carcass. This behavior was observed by the Celts of old; but so too by the Native American tribes of the American South, who called the bird colonah; this was also an epithet they gave to the leader of a war party, who would scout ahead of the main warband to find suitable targets for the warriors to attack. As we shall sea, Bran is closely connected with these fey creatures, even to the present day.
In Welsh, the name for the raven is Bran, but Bran is also the name of an ancient hero/king who was both a sailor and a supernatural being connected with regeneration. In fact, there were probably several ancient leaders called Bran. There are a number of stories told by the Welsh about Bran, and also by the Irish; and sometimes the stories are fantastic and seem to make little sense, but that doe not necessarily make them untrue for all of that. Bear with me and let us try to separate out these different Brans of Celtic lore and history and assign to them at least a rough chronology, much as an archaeologist might sort out fragments of pottery which he finds all in a jumble and tries to arrange them in order from oldest to latest. Sir William Flinders Petrie pioneered this method long ago, although that was in another time for another civilization.
In his earliest incarnation Bran (or Brain Mac Febail to the Irish) is a god, whose brother is Manawydan fab Llyr (to the Irish, Manannan Mac Lyr); both gods were closely connected with seafaring and credited with the invention of celestial navigation, a discovery which probably dates to some time in the Mesolithic era. In the Voyage of Bran (the Gaelic tale Imramm Brain) the hero/god is lured to take a voyage westward. Two days out to sea he encounters Manannan/Manawydan. This meeting would not be so unusual, save for the fact that while Bran is traveling over the rolling waves in a sea going vessel, Manannan is riding his chariot across rolling meadows of dry land. He voyages farther west and encounters several fantastic lands in the middle of the sea. During the stone age it should be noted, various parts of the Irish Sea and its adjacent waters were in fact dry land, and islands now beneath the sea were then above the waves, a fact not appreciated until recently and which folk memory apparently retained through long ages.
Bran surfaces in another tale which Geoffrey of Monmouth relates, a convoluted tale of Brennius and Belinus (or Beli). Brennius is Geoffrey’s Latin rendition of the name Bran and he seems to relate a story that dates to some time in the Iron Age. The two brothers feud over the kingship of Britain and then embark on various adventures and conquests on the continent. They invade Gaul, sack Rome and one of the two invades the Balkans, making himself unwelcome their. While one is tempted to dismiss Geoffrey’s story as a fabrication, there are just enough historical echoes to lead some scholars to believe this is a distant echo of some oral tradition still current in Britain in Geoffrey’s time, which may have been brought to the island by the Belgae in the Iron Age. Livy records a sack of Rome by a Celtic tribe, while Pausanius tells of Delphi being looted and burned in the Iron Age by Celtic invaders led by two leaders named Brennios and Bolgius. Some of the Celtic invaders even crossed into Anatolia where they raised further hell before they were stopped.
The sack of Rome (ca. 390 BC) was real enough and there is no reason to doubt that the leader of the combined British/Gaulish army was named Bran/Brennius- or its Iron Age equivalent. Hower the sack of Delphi was undoubtedly by different Celtic invaders whose leader apparently shared the same name, since the two conquests occurred about a century apart; but Brendan MacGonagle in his Balkan Celts blog theorizes “that Brennos was not a personal name, but a military title given to the overall commander of a Celtic army drawn from different tribes.” In this regard, the Celtic warbands acted very much like the Cherokee war parties of the eighteenth century. In his article on “CATUBODUA – Queen of Death” MacGonagle also notes that Iron Age Celts often practiced excarnation: leaving the bodies of those who die in battle exposed for carrion beasts to consume. Sometimes these were vultures, but in Britain it would have been ravens and crows. During battle, war goddess appeared in the guise of a bird of prey, to carry the souls of the fallen brave away. Unspoken, but related, may be the notion that the crows or ravens, by devouring the Celtic war dead, would absorb the souls as well as the flesh of the slain warriors. This would explain several motifs connected with the archetypal Bran and their close connection with ravens.
Near the picturesque village of Llangollen, by the fast running River Dee, rises the hillfort of Castell Dinas Bran, believed to once have been the abode of Bran. This Bran may be in fact a historical personage, although with oral tradition one can never be completely certain. The hillfort was probably originally occupied in the Iron Age, but was probably reoccupied some time in the late fourth or early fifth century AD. The ruins that one sees today date to the Middle Ages where it served to hold the Welsh hills against the barbaric English kings.
This Bran was the subject of another Welsh tale from the Mabinogion, collected in the Middle Ages but originating centuries earlier. In this incarnation he is known as Bendigeidfran—Bran the Blessed. While this Bran too has supernatural aspects, underlying the story seems to be a record of real events, probably occurring either in the late fourth or early fifth century AD. This Bran would probably have been named Comes Brennius, and he was likely more Roman than Celt; but just as the Roman general Maximus became Maxen Wledig, later Welsh bards remembered him as one of their own. The tale called Branwen verch Llŷr relates how Matholwych, an Irish king, came to seek the hand of Bran’s sister Branwen. Bran consented and the match was made; however Bran’s trouble making brother was insulted that he was not consulted and made trouble, mutilating the Irishman’s horses. For a time Bran smoothed things over and it seemed Branwen and her husband would be happy; but the Irish king was persuaded to punish Branwen for her brother’s insults and Branwen sent a raven with a message to her brother Bran asking him to rescue her.
Bran launched a fleet of ships to punish the Irish and then fought a might battle on Irish soil. The Irish were defeated, but Bran himself was mortally wounded. He instructed his surviving warriors to cut off his head and return it to Britain. This they did, but found their king still kept conversing with them all the way back to London, where he was buried beneath the White Hill (later the Tower of London) with the promise that so long as his head lay buried facing Gaul, no enemy would ever invade the isle of Britain. Behind all the fantastic imagery and exaggeration, seems to be an account of a punitive expedition, undoubtedly launched from the old legionary fortress of Chester, which was also located at the highest point on the River Dee still navigable by ships. In the late fourth and continuing well into the fifth century, Irish incursions and settlements continued to plague western Britain and likely Bran’s ill fated raid was neither the first nor last British counter-attack. A flock of ravens followed Bran to London and ever since have dwelt at the site where Bran’s head was interred, faithful bodyguards who dwell in the Tower of London forevermore.
Although not linked to this Bran by any scholar I know of, this unsuccessful attack on the Irish might explain why, in 429 AD, an Irish/Pictish army suddenly appeared in western Britain without any apparent local leader to resist the invasion. When Germanus of Auxerre was summoned to lead the British to resist the invaders, he apparently fought them at Llangollen, which is coincidently where Bran’s hillfort lay. Coincidence? I doubt it; this was probably the mustering point for the local militia of the hill country, to which whatever regular troops were available also rallied—and probably including a few Saxon mercenaries in British pay to boot. As I noted in my previous blog about Germanus, armies of men do not suddenly appear out of the ground and certainly the army Germanus led in battle did not.
Another tale from the Mabinogion tells, not about Bran, but of an army of ravens who seem to act like human warriors. In the Dream of Rhonabwy where Owain’s teulu of ravens battle King Arthur’s knights and get the better of them, while their leaders play chess. Owain had an army of Ravens, some three hundred in number, and they seem to have been inherited from father to son in that royal household; the ravens were loyal to their masters to the death, much as Bran’s teulu of ravens were to their master; for to this day Bran’s ravens stand guard in London protecting the realm against foreign invaders.
Bran, Brennius, Brennios, or the other names this ancient hero goes by, may be a flight of fancy of the Celtic imagination–or not–but either way, the ravens who are so closely connected with him are real enough–and smarter than many humans. No wonder that George R. R. Martin borrowed the raven motif from Celtic myth and history for his popular Game of Thrones book and TV series–and the deep magic of the corvidae may well be the real reason underlying the series phenomenal success.
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 DeExcidio 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.
Insofar as the miraculous events in Constantius’ vitago, 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.