Germanus of Auxerre and His Connection to Arthurian Legends

Germanus of Auxerre was one of the most prominent religious figures active in Britain in the fifth century. What connection, if any, did he have to the Arthurian legends?

Feb 21, 2024By Caleb Howells, BA Doctrines and Methodology of Education
germanus of auxerre king arthur

 

After the Romans were expelled from Britain at the start of the fifth century, Britain entered a kind of Dark Age. One of the few figures whom we know a little about was a religious leader named Germanus of Auxerre. He was sent on a mission to Britain to deal with the spread of a doctrine called Pelagianism. His activities are described in a document known as the Vita Germani (The Life of Germanus), written by Constantius of Lyons in about 480. In at least one modern film based on the Arthurian legends, Germanus of Auxerre is made a contemporary of King Arthur. But more significantly, some medieval texts make Germanus a contemporary of several associates of Arthur. But why?

 

Who Was Germanus of Auxerre? Bishop from Arthurian Legend

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Depiction of Saint Germanus of Auxerre, by Aidan Hart, 2019, via Aidanharticons.com

 

Firstly, it is important to establish who Germanus of Auxerre really was. He was a Gallic man appointed as provincial governor of Armorica (the northwest region of France) by Emperor Honorius. Later, in 418, he was appointed bishop of Auxerre. In the year 429, bishops in Britain sent an appeal for help to deal with the spread of a doctrine called Pelagianism, which they viewed as heretical. In response, Pope Celestine sent Germanus and another bishop called Lupus. Allegedly, their mission was largely successful. They also helped to lead the Britons in a successful battle against an army of Picts and Saxons.

 

Germanus returned to Britain shortly after this and years later, Pelagianism began spreading again. Therefore, in about 447, he was sent back to Britain. This campaign was highly successful, apparently stamping out this doctrine once and for all. He swiftly returned to Gaul, finding his province in political turmoil, and then died in 448.

 

Germanus’ Connections to the Arthurian Legends

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Historia Brittonum, folio 1, via the British Library, London

 

Germanus’ first appearance in the Arthurian legends comes from the Historia Brittonum, written in about 828. In this text, Germanus leads the rebellion against wicked King Vortigern, which results in Vortigern dying as his tower burns to the ground. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle records that Vortigern was alive at least as late as 455, which is later than Germanus of Auxerre’s death date of 448.

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st germanus auxerre arthurian legends
Statue of Germanus of Auxerre, from Paris, by Mbzt, via Wikimedia Commons

 

Germanus is also connected to various “saints,” or prominent religious figures, of early Dark Age British history. For example, one of the most prominent bishops of southeast Wales was Dubricius, allegedly bishop of Llandaff. He appears in the Arthurian legends as King Arthur’s chief bishop. The twelfth-century Book of Llandaff claims that Dubricius had been appointed by Germanus. Yet, virtually all authorities place Dubricius’ birth no earlier than about 460. The Life of St Illtud claims that Illtud, the supposed cousin of King Arthur, was a disciple of Germanus. Another alleged disciple of Germanus was Paulinus, a bishop who taught Teilo (a thoroughly mid-sixth-century figure). Paulinus was also active at the Synod of Brefi, dated to c. 550 or 560.

 

The Impossible Chronology of Germanus and the Arthurian Legends

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Medieval inscription of Illtud’s name, St Illtyd’s Church, Llantwit Major, Wales. Author’s own collection

 

Clearly, it is not possible for Paulinus to have really been a disciple of Germanus of Auxerre, seeing as Germanus died in 448. Chronology also completely rules out Dubricius having really been his disciple. The chronology involving Vortigern is also impossible, assuming the entry in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle mentioning Vortigern alive in 455 is accurate.

 

However, the connection to Illtud is sometimes accepted by modern authorities. Some of them state that Illtud was a fifth century religious figure, and that he may have died right at the start of the sixth century. This, however, is in direct conflict with the earliest records concerning Illtud. The earliest record in which he appears is the Life of St Samson, which may have been written as early as the seventh or eighth century. This record shows that Samson lived beyond the death of a king of Brittany named Conomor, which occurred in 560. Meanwhile, it makes Samson and Illtud contemporaries, as does the later Life of St Illtud.

 

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Statue of Saint Brioc, Saint-Brieuc de Plonivel, Brittany, France, via Wikimedia Commons

 

Another religious figure associated with the Arthurian legends who simply could not have genuinely been connected to Germanus of Auxerre is Brioc. He is said to have been sent to Germanus, along with Illtud as a fellow pupil. As we have seen, Illtud lived in the sixth century, not the fifth. Interestingly, Brioc is also said to have been a contemporary of Samson, and he visited the Frankish king Childebert, who reigned between 511 and 558. Therefore, the evidence is clear that Brioc was a sixth century religious figure, not a fifth century religious figure. How, then, can he have been educated by Germanus, given that Germanus died in 448?

 

The simple reality of the era which gave rise to the Arthurian legends is that there were many people who had the same name. Could it be, then, that there was more than one prominent religious figure named Germanus in this era? Many scholars believe so. It is certainly a possibility, but is there any direct evidence for it?

 

The Other Fifth Century Germanus

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Stained-glass window depiction of Saint Patrick, Cathedral of Christ the Light, Oakland, California, via Britannica

 

Of course, the very fact that there are several records of “Germanus” that do not fit the chronology of Germanus of Auxerre is evidence in itself that there was another person by that name. However, direct references to a distinct Germanus would be very helpful. As it happens, there are such references. For example, the late-twelfth-century writer Jocelyn of Furness wrote about Patrick, the famous preacher in Ireland. He wrote that Patrick had a disciple named Germanus. According to this record, Patrick set up this Germanus over the church that he had just established on the Isle of Man. Patrick himself had learned from Germanus of Auxerre, according to Muirchú, a writer of the seventh century. Therefore, this Germanus recorded as a disciple of Patrick is clearly a different person.

 

The existence of this younger Germanus is supported by the writings of Óengus of Tallaght. He wrote that Patrick’s sister, Lupita, had a number of sons, one of which was called MoGorman. The idea that this nephew of Patrick named MoGorman was also his disciple recorded as “Germanus” is perfectly plausible.

 

How Germanus of the Isle of Man Explains the Arthurian Legends

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The first meeting of the British king Vortigern with the two Saxon Chiefs Hengist and Horsa, in the Isle of Thanet, by William Walker, 1786, via the British Museum

 

What we can see so far is that there was a prominent bishop of the Isle of Man named Germanus. He was the disciple and possibly the nephew of Patrick. Since Patrick was active in the mid-fifth century, his disciple Germanus would logically have been active in the mid- to late-fifth century. This fits perfectly with the Germanus who appears in the Historia Brittonum as a contemporary of Vortigern.

 

There is another piece of the puzzle from the Arthurian legends that this later Germanus may explain. In a medieval record called The Life of St Nennocha, we are told that Germanus was sent from Ireland by Patrick to King Brochanus of Britain. This king can only be King Brychan, a monarch mentioned in numerous medieval texts concerning Wales. He is mentioned in one eleventh-century tale as an opponent of Arthur very early in his reign. Thus, we can see that the Germanus mentioned here as being sent to “Brochanus” must have lived close to the year 500. Given the chronology and the fact that he is recorded as being sent by Patrick, this is clearly Germanus the disciple of Patrick, not Germanus of Auxerre.

 

The Historical Germanus of Paris

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Memorial stone to mark the tomb of Germain of Paris, Abbey of Saint-Germain-des- Prés, via Wikimedia Commons

 

It is likely that the bishop of the Isle of Man was also the Germanus who ordained Dubricius, given that Dubricius was born in c. 460. However, this bishop of the Isle of Man cannot explain all the references to Germanus in figures from the Arthurian legends. For example, even this disciple of Patrick surely lived too early to have been the teacher of Illtud. Nor could he have been the Germanus who taught Brioc, a thoroughly mid-sixth-century figure.

 

However, the record concerning Brioc itself provides the explanation. It says that Brioc was sent (along with Illtud) by his parents to be educated by Germanus in Paris. It does not say that he was sent to Auxerre. Significantly, it is known that there was a bishop of Paris by the name of Germanus (usually spelled ‘Germain’ in modern sources) who lived in the sixth century. He was born just before the start of that century and died in 576. This record about Brioc being sent to Paris to be educated by Germanus is clearly a reference to this historical figure, not to the earlier Germanus of Auxerre.

 

How Germanus of Paris Explains the Confusion in the Arthurian Legends

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Illustration of Germain of Paris from the Book of Hours, by Jean le Tavernier, 15th century, via Wikimedia Commons

 

In summary, we can see that the various references to Germanus in texts related to the Arthurian legends are not all about the same person. A few of them refer to Germanus of Auxerre, the most famous person by that name. However, it seems that the majority of them are not about him. In reality, Germanus of Auxerre had strikingly little to do with the Arthurian legends. We have seen that there was a disciple of Patrick called Germanus, who may have also been his nephew, MoGorman. He must have been active from the mid-to late-fifth century. He is almost certainly the main Germanus of the Arthurian legends, the one who campaigned against wicked King Vortigern. He must have been the Germanus who ordained Dubricius, the main bishop associated with King Arthur in the legends. It is also possible that he was the teacher of Paulinus, himself the teacher of Teilo.

 

Another figure who undoubtedly came to be confused with Germanus of Auxerre was Germain of Paris. He, instead, might have been the teacher of Paulinus. Certainly, he was the teacher of Illtud (allegedly King Arthur’s cousin) and Brioc.

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By Caleb HowellsBA Doctrines and Methodology of EducationCaleb is a published history author with a strong interest in ancient Britain and the Mediterranean world. He holds a BA in the Doctrines and Methodology of Education from USILACS. He is the author of "King Arthur: The Man Who Conquered Europe" and "The Trojan Kings of Britain: Myth or History?". Caleb enjoys learning about history in general, but he especially loves investigating myths and legends and seeing how they might be explained by historical events and individuals.