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Germanus of Auxerre

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Germanus of Auxerre

Saint Germanus of Auxerre
Born c. 378
Died c. 448
Honored in
Roman Catholic Church, Eastern Orthodox Church
Feast July 31

Germanus of Auxerre (Welsh: Garmon Sant) (c. 378 – c. 448) was a bishop of Auxerre in Late Antique Gaul. He best remembered for his journey to combat Pelagianism in Britain in or around 429 AD, and the records of this visit provide valuable information on the state of post-Roman British society. He also played an important part in the invention and promotion of the Cult of Saint Alban, who was unknown before the saint revealed himself to Germanus in a dream or holy vision. Germanus is venerated as a saint in both the Roman Catholic and Orthodox churches, which commemorate him on July 31.

The principal source for the events of his life is the Vita Germani, a hagiography written by Constantius of Lyon around 480, and the Passio Albani, which may possibly have been written or commissioned by Germanus. Constantius was a friend of Bishop Lupus of Troyes, who accompanied Germanus to Britain, which provided him with a link to Germanus.

Early life

Saint Germain l'Auxerrois statue

Germanus was the son of Rusticus and Germanilla, and his family was one of the noblest in Gaul in the latter portion of the fourth century. He received the very best education provided by the distinguished schools of Arles and Lyons, and then went to Rome, where he studied eloquence and civil law. He practised there before the tribunal of the prefect for some years with great success. His high birth and brilliant talents brought him into contact with the court, and he married Eustachia, a lady highly esteemed in imperial circles. The emperor sent him back to Gaul, appointing him one of the six dukes, entrusted with the government of the Gallic provinces. He resided at Auxerre.[1]

At length he incurred the displeasure of the bishop, Saint Amator by hanging hunting trophies on a certain tree, which in earlier times had been the scene of pagan worship. Amator remonstrated with him in vain. One day when the duke was absent, the bishop had the tree cut down and the trophies burnt. Fearing the anger of the duke, who wished to kill him, he fled and appealed to the prefect Julius for permission to confer the tonsure on Germain. This being granted, Amator, who felt that his own life was drawing to a close, returned. When the duke came to the church, Amator caused the doors to be barred and gave him the tonsure against his will, telling him to live as one destined to be his successor, and forthwith made him a deacon.[1]

When in a short time Amator died, Germain was unanimously chosen to fill the vacant see, being consecrated 7 July, 418. His education now served him in good stead in the government of the diocese, which he administered with great sagacity. He distributed his goods among the poor, practised great austerities, and built a large monastery dedicated to Saints Cosmas and Damian on the banks of the Yonne, whither he was wont to retire in his spare moments.[1]

Visit to Britain

Stained glass window at Gloucester Cathedral depicting St Patrick being taught by St Germanus

Around 429, shortly after the Romans had withdrawn from Britain, a Gaulish assembly of bishops chose Germanus and Lupus, Bishop of Troyes, to visit the island. It was alleged that Pelagianism was rife among the British clergy, led by a British bishop's son named Agricola. Germanus went to combat the threat and satisfy the Pope that the British church would not break away from the Augustinian teachings of divine grace.[2] On the way to Britain they passed through Nanterre, where Germanus noticed in the crowd which met them a young girl, whom he bade live as one espoused to Christ, and who later became St. Geneviève of Paris. [3] Germanus and Lupus confronted the British clergy at a public meeting before a huge crowd in Britain. The Pelagians were described as being 'conspicuous for riches, brilliant in dress and surrounded by a fawning multitude'. The bishops debated and, despite having no popular support, Germanus was able to defeat the Pelagians using his superior rhetorical skills.

Constantius also recounts the miraculous healing of the child of 'a man with tribunician power'.[2] This use of the word tribune may imply the existence of some form of post-Roman government system. However, in Constantius' lifetime tribune had acquired a looser definition, and often was used to indicate any military officer, whether part of the Imperial army or part of a town militia.

Germanus led the native Britons to a victory against Pictish and Saxon raiders, at a mountainous site near a river, of which Mold in North Wales is the traditional location. The enemy approaching, the former general put himself at the head of the Christians. He led them into a vale between two high mountains, and ordered his troops shout when he gave them a sign. When the Saxon pirates came near them, he cried out thrice, Alleluia, which was followed by the whole army of Britonns. The sound echoed from the hills with a noise so loud that the barbarians, judging from the shout that they were facing a mighty army, flung down their arms and ran away, leaving behind their baggage and booty.[2]

The possibly contemporary British ruler described as a "proud tyrant" by Gildas, and identified with the 'Vortigern' of Welsh tradition, is said to have made use of Saxon mercenaries. It is not possible to know what impact Germanus's visit really had on Pelagianism in Britain. The link with Saint Patrick, traditionally portrayed as his pupil, is also contested in recent scholarship.

Germanus and the Cult of Saint Alban

Immediately after the debate with the Pelagians, Germanus gave thanks for his victory at the grave of Saint Alban, which was likely in some sort of tomb or basilica (some translators use the word "shrine," but this word is not in the original Latin and suggests that the cult of Saint Alban had been established before Germanus' visit to Britain, which is improbable).[4][5] However, the name and identity of this martyr was a unknown to the Britons there. That night, Germanus claimed that Saint Alban came to him in a dream, revealing his identity and the details of his martyrdom. When Germanus awoke, he had the account written down in tituli, possibly to be engraved on the walls or illustrated placards at a church site in Auxerre.[6] Historians believe that this account formed the basis if the Passio Albani, the foundational text of all information about Saint Alban.[7] Germanus then deposited some of the bones of continental saints in the basilica, and took a sample of the earth at the site of Alban's martyrdom, which still bore the marks of the martyr's blood. Germanus was therefore responsible for the creations and promotion of the cult of Saint Alban.[4][6]

Later life

Germanus may have made a second visit to Britain in the mid 430s[8][9] or mid 440s, though this is contested by some scholars[10] who suggest it may be a 'doublet' or variant version of the visit that has been mistaken as describing a different visit and erroneously included as such by Constantius, according to whom Germanus was joined by Severus, Bishop of Trier and met Elafius, described by Bede as 'a chief of that region'. Germanus is said to have cured Elafius' enfeebled son by a miracle that served to persuade the population that Gaulish Catholicism rather than Pelagianism was the true faith.

He died in Ravenna while petitioning the Roman government for leniency for the citizens of Armorica,[11] against whom Aëtius had dispatched the Alans on a punitive expedition. Germanus had famously confronted Goar, the king of the Alans, so Constantius's Life relates.

Based on the scanty evidence, some scholars have argued that his death should be dated to 445, 446, 447 or 448, and others that it should be dated to c. 437.[8][9]


Saint Germanus's tomb continues to be venerated in the church of the Abbey of Saint-Germain d'Auxerre, which although now part of municipal museum remains open for worship at stated times. There is a tradition of a panegyric on the Sunday nearest to or preceding his festival in July.

The cult of Saint Germanus of Auxerre spread in northern France, hence the church Saint-Germain l'Auxerrois facing the Louvre in Paris. His cult is clearly distinguished from that of the homonymous Saint Germanus of Paris. He is associated with the church at Charonne in the east of Paris and the cult of Saint Genevieve (Genoveva) in Nanterre to the west of the city, both situated on the late Roman road network. His journey to Britain is commemorated in his dedications at Siouville and at Saint-Germain-les-Vaux in the Cotentin (Manche).

In the 2004 edition of the Roman Martyrology, Germanus is listed under July 31. He is described as 'passing at Ravenna, a bishop who defended Britain against the Pelagian heresy and travelled to make peace for Armorica'.[12]

In Great Britain

The former priory church at St Germans in Cornwall bears his name and was in late Saxon times the seat of a bishop. A few other churches in Cornwall are also dedicated to the saint as is the church at Germansweek in west Devon.

In Wales, Germanus is remembered as an early influence on the Celtic Church. In the current Bodley explicitly dedicated to the saint of Auxerre, Anglicised as St German's, opened in Adamsdown, Cardiff in 1884.

Germanus is traditionally credited with the establishment of the Diocese of Sodor and Man on the Isle of Man, though this may have been a different man of a similar name. There was widespread conflation of the two in mediaeval tradition, but scholars have contested the traditional identification with the Welsh Saint Garmon, commemorated in the North Welsh placename Llanarmon. Other churches in North Wales which may attest his cult are at Capel Garmon, Llanarmon, Llanarmon Dyffryn Ceiriog and Llanarmon-yn-Ial.

Fictional portrayals of Germanus

  • Germanus figures in the 2004 movie King Arthur, although his second and final mission to Britain took place twenty years before the year the movie is set in. He is portrayed by Italian actor Ivano Marescotti.
  • His visit to Britain is the subject of a Welsh radio play by Saunders Lewis entitled Buchedd Garmon.
  • Germanus appears many times in the Jack Whyte series "A Dream of Eagles'" and "The Golden Eagle" .

In addition, Hilaire Belloc referred to Germanus in his humorous poem, The Pelagian Drinking Song:

And with his stout Episcopal staff
So thoroughly whacked and banged
The heretics all, both short and tall --
They rather had been hanged.
  • In Valerio Massimo Manfredi's novel The Last Legion, Germanus dies in Britain after his arrival on the island to lead the Romans and Britons against the barbarian Picts. Before he dies, the Bishop recites his last words as a prophecy and founds the last legion of Britain, entrusting them with their standard: a silver dragon with a purple tail.


  1. ^ a b c MacErlean, Andrew. "St. Germain." The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 6. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1909. 26 Jan. 2013
  2. ^ a b c , Vol. VII, 1866The Lives of the SaintsButler, Rev. Alban, "St. Germanus, Bishop of Auxerre, Confessor",
  3. ^ Dictionary of Christian Biography"Germanus, St., bp. of Auxerre",
  4. ^ a b Garcia, Michael. "Saint Alban and the Cult of Saints in Late Antique Britain". Retrieved 19 November 2014. 
  5. ^ Constantius of Lyon; Trans. Vermaat, Robert. "The text of the Vita sancti Germani". Retrieved 19 November 2014. 
  6. ^ a b Wood, Ian (2009). "Germanus, Alban and Auxerre". BUCEMA Bulletin du centre d’études médiévales d’Auxerre 13. Retrieved 20 November 2014. 
  7. ^ Sharpe, Richard (2001). Henigand, M.; Lindley, P., eds. "The late antique passion of St Alban". Alban and St Albans. 
  8. ^ a b Thompson, E. A. (1984) Saint Germanus of Auxerre and the End of Roman Britain. Woodbridge: Boydell
  9. ^ a b Wood, I. N. (1984) "The End of Roman Britain: Continental evidence and parallels", in M. Lapidge & D. Dumville (eds.) Gildas: New Approaches. Woodbridge, Suffolk: Boydell; pp. 1 – 25.
  10. ^ Anthony A. Barrett, "Saint Germanus and the British Missions", Britannia 40 (2009), 197–217
  11. ^ "St Germanus the Bishop of Auxerre", Orthodox Church in America
  12. ^ Martyrologium Romanum, 2004, Vatican Press (Typis Vaticanis), page 425.
  13. ^ National Calendar for Wales, accessed 6 February 2012

Further reading

  • Hoare, F. R. (1965) The Western Fathers. New York: Harper Torchbooks (A translation of the "Life of St Germanus" appears on pp. 283–320)
  • Bowen, E. G. (1954) The Settlements of the Celtic Saints in Wales. Cardiff: University of Wales Press
  • Thompson, E. A. (1984) Saint Germanus of Auxerre and the End of Roman Britain. Woodbridge: Boydell
  • Wood, I. N. (1984) "The End of Roman Britain: Continental evidence and parallels", in M. Lapidge & D. Dumville (eds.) Gildas: New Approaches. Woodbridge, Suffolk: Boydell; pp. 1 – 25.

External links

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