Constantius, St Germanus and fifth-century Britain


  • This essay arises out of a paper presented to the ‘Crisis, what Crisis?’ conference in the Mellon Foundation's Sawyer Seminar Series at the McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research, University of Cambridge, from 30 November to 1 December 2009. I am particularly grateful to Professor Paul Fouracre for his critical reading of it in draft and numerous suggestions as to improvements, and to Professor Ian Wood for his speedy provision of recent articles, and correspondence regarding the relationship between Germanus and the cult of Alban. I am also grateful to the two anonymous referees, many of whose suggested improvements I have attempted to implement. All errors and the opinions expressed however remain my own.


The two visits of Germanus to Britain that Constantius included in his Life of the saint were long a staple of insular history. Recently, however, they have come under close scrutiny, leading to the second visit in particular being considered unhistorical. This essay re-examines the two visits in the context of the whole work, concluding that Constantius had access to good-quality information for Germanus's activities. Focusing on two episodes of the first visit, Germanus's journey to the cult site of St Alban and the ‘Alleluia Victory’, allows us to explore what the bishop achieved in Britain. Recent suggestions that Germanus effectively ‘invented’ the cult of St Alban arguably go beyond the evidence available, but the bishop's interaction with the cult was an important, planned part of his anti-Pelagian strategy. The passages describing the two visits are also explored in terms of Constantius's wider purposes in writing the Life. In those terms his investment in stories regarding Germanus in Britain enabled him to develop his hero in ways which accord with his overall vision of an exemplary bishop. Germanus's deeds in Britain, therefore, need to be read both in terms of what they can offer in terms of British history and in the context of this author's wider agenda.