So the people shouted when the priests blew with the trumpets: and it came to pass, when the people heard the sound of the trumpet, and the people shouted with a great shout, that the wall fell down flat, so that the people went up into the city, every man straight before him, and they took the city.
In Maes Garmon, in the Vale of Llangollen in Flintshire, an obelisk marks the traditional site of one of the strangest battles in British history. The battle was commanded by Germanus, who lent his name to “Maes Garmon” (Germanus’s field). He was a fifth-century Romano-Gaul, who studied law and served as a military captain in the area of modern Brittany and Normandy. In 418, however, he made an abrupt career change, being elected Bishop of Auxerre. Despite the glowing claims of later hagiographers, this had less to do with Germanus’s piety and more with the symbiosis between the aristocracy and the church, struggling to hold Gaulish society together as the Roman Empire crumbled.
The state of things in Gaul, however, was nothing compared to the anarchy in Britain. Civil society had utterly collapsed, leaving the Britons vulnerable to increasing attacks by Saxons (from Germany), Picts (from Scotland) and Scots (from Ireland – pay attention). The island’s native administration was disintegrating, as the last generation of executive and military officials re-invented themselves as petty kings and the church, far from providing some kind of glue to hold this fragmenting society together, was riven by the Pelagian heresy, which taught that anyone could live sinlessly if he wished, without the need for divine grace.
In 429, the Pope sent Germanus and Lupus, Bishop of Troyes, to Britain to preach against the heresy, which they did successfully in a public debate, apparently held at the old Roman garrison town of Verulamium. While there, Germanus revived the cult of another Roman soldier, whose own spiritual battle in that city had ended in his death. It is not for nothing that Verulamium is now called Saint Alban’s.
Aside from Pelagians, however, there were other enemies disturbing the peace of Britain. The Picts and the Saxons had made an alliance and were now combining their forces to launch massive raids on the southern provinces, looting valuables and capturing Britons for slaves. In desperation, the British authorities asked Germanus and Lupus to take charge of the response. Germanus, of course, was a former soldier, so this was not an unnatural appointment but, conscious that it was Lent, the bishops nonetheless insisted that a portable chapel be constructed and carried on campaign, during which they trained the warriors as much in religion as in tactics and performed mass baptisms.
When word reached the Picto-Saxon army that the Britons were led by two bishops, their reaction was “What a pair of wusses!” (even in those days, no one took the French seriously as a military power). Confident of victory, they hastened to meet the British army but their hope of surprising them was disappointed when British scouts detected their approach. They reported to Germanus, who selected a crack team of Britons and went to forestall the barbarians in a valley, through which they were expected to pass.
The bishop arranged his warriors along the rim of the hills, overlooking the valley. After a while, they heard the tramping of approaching feet. They heard commands barked through the air, some in the nasal, twanging language of the Picts, others in the rough, throaty language of the Saxons. Then, they saw a sight to match the sounds. Deep in the valley below them, the Britons saw the barbarian horde, marching in two parallel columns. One flank was formed of Saxon thugs, wielding their short swords, with their oval shields slung on their backs, marching before their leader, signified by the windsock of a golden dragon that was carried before him. In the other rank were the Picts, carrying spears and square shields, their tartan cloaks and long straggling hair billowing behind them.
These were the heathens who had invaded Britain, taking advantage of the sudden absence of the Roman army and navy to pillage the land of its wealth and people. These were the paynim, worshippers of Tiw and Thunor, who sought to bring their own idolatrous Hell upon the Christ-fearing Britons. They thought that the followers of the Nazarene carpenter were weak, disunited and cowardly, who adored a God Whose best military advice was to let one’s enemy strike the other cheek. What weapon had the Christian Britons, if they were true to their creed, which could possible repel the invaders?
Germanus was the first to raise the shout. Then his priests copied him and finally the Britons themselves bellowed the sacred salute.
A second time the Gaulish bishop hollered the holy war-cry and a second time his priests and soldiers sent it echoing down the hillside.
The trinity of alleluias was complete but still it resounded, rolling down and around the valley, as though choirs of angels themselves were shouting it. The Picts and Saxons staggered to a halt and looked around, demented, confused, disoriented, horrified, as the invisible army of sound smashed through their ranks and rang through their skulls.
They turned and ran. They ran in a state of abject terror, ran over one another, trampled their own men, their own captains, their own dragon-standard as they fled back through the valley. Thousands drowned attempting to cross a river and the survivors dispersed, disunited and cowardly, struggled one by one through hostile country to find their own shores again.
Germanus had triumphed over both man and the Devil and returned to Gaul, his mission accomplished. Except that it was not accomplished. He had won a battle but he had not won the war. As the fifth century progressed, the Saxons, Angles and Jutes would resume their attacks on Britain, eventually capturing and re-settling the low-lying and fertile part of the island, which the Britons called Loegria but which came to be known as Angleland. In 730, one such Angle, a Northumbrian named Bede, recorded Germanus’s extraordinary victory in his Ecclesiastical History of the English Nation.
Bede relied on a typically gushing hagiography of Saint Germanus, written thirty years after the man’s death. The modern reader can be forgiven for being a mite sceptical of the story of the Alleluia Victory, with its shades of Joshua at Jericho but that is to ignore the true purpose of hagiography, which, like so much of the Old Testament, is not so much to record what had actually happened as to convey the spiritual ideal of what should happen. By Bede’s time, the descendents of the Germanic invaders whom Germanus temporarily defeated had in their turn become Christians and, though of English blood himself, Bede celebrated Germanus’s victory against his own antecedents, a victory fought in true Christian fashion and won not by violence but by a prayer.
If only, Bede is telling us, all wars could be ended in this way.