5th-century Britain is one of those frustrating time periods in history where we know there were numerous great people taking actions that had tremendous influence on the world, but the information about that age lays buried under a thick layer of folklore and myth. It was the century of the High King, Vortigern, and the arrival of the Saxons into Britain. It was the century that saw the rule of Ambrosius Aurelianus, a possible inspiration for the later tales of King Arthur. The age also saw at least two great missionary bishops enter Britain, St. Patrick and St. Germanus. While we know some of the names and we know the results of how history would eventually play out, we have very little concrete evidence from the age, itself. Therefore, history about 5th-century Britain can unfortunately often feel like theory rather than sober fact. On the bright side, however, these layers of folklore, legend, miracles and myth make for great storytelling.
The warrior kings of 5th-century Britain were not the only people to have extravagant tales written about them. The priests and bishops present in the British Isles were also attributed with all sorts of divine miracles. In one elaborate tale, the 8th-century Welsh writer, Nennius, recorded a story in which St. Germanus overthrew a Welsh tyrant in Powys with destructive miracles reminiscent of biblical stories of divine retribution.
Before delving into the folklore and myth of Nennius’ tale, it may be helpful to learn more about the real St. Germanus. Thankfully, he is one of the players in 5th-century Britain about whom we have a decent amount of reliable information. Germanus was born in Auxerre, France, around the year 378, in ancient Gaul. He was well connected and began a promising career in Roman politics, but he eventually chose religion over government and became the bishop of Auxerre. According to the Ecclesiastical History of the English People by Bede (c. 673-735), St. Germanus traveled to Britain on at least two church missions, around the years 429 and 438, respectively. His main goal, according to Bede, was to combat the spread of the Pelagian heresy, but he did not spend all of his time debating against heretics. Bede also wrote of numerous miracles that the saint allegedly performed and even claimed that Germanus gave an army of Britons spiritual encouragement on the field of battle, helping them overcome a combined force of Picts and Saxons. Yet, Germanus’ missions in Britain seemed to be fairly brief, with him returning to mainland Europe after his successes. St. Germanus died in Ravenna a few years after his last mission to Britain.
In his History of the Britons, Nennius included a tale about St. Germanus that the more historically-grounded Bede decided to leave out of his own record. According to Nennius’ tale, St. Germanus heard of a tyrant in the Welsh region of Powys while he was on one of his missions in Britain. The tyrant was given several names—Benlli, Benli, Belinus, Beluni or Benty, yet, for simplicity’s sake, we will just call him “the tyrant.” As the story goes, Germanus traveled to Powys to convert the tyrant to the path of righteousness. Hearing of the clergyman’s presence and purpose, the tyrant apparently ordered that Germanus be strictly forbidden from entering the city. Unfortunately for the tyrant, St. Germanus was willing to wait. According to Nennius, the saint camped outside the tyrant’s wall for the outrageous span of a year, still waiting for his audience with the stubborn monarch.
During this long battle of wills between the tyrant and the saint, Germanus evidently impressed a certain Welsh nobleman named Cadell Ddyrnllwg or Cadell Deyrnllug, who was subservient to the tyrant. Cadell eventually invited Germanus to his estate, which was apparently outside of the city walls. There, the nobleman served a meal of calf for the saint and the two men became friends. In thanks, St. Germanus performed a dramatic miracle. He allegedly made sure to keep the bones of the calf from his dinner intact and, overnight, the discarded bones fused back together again with sinew, muscle and flesh. The resurrected calf was supposedly found standing beside its mother the next day.
After a year of waiting patiently, St. Germanus decided that he would wait no longer. The saint ominously sent a message to Cadell, telling the man to get all of his friends out of the tyrant’s city. According to the tale, St. Germanus joined Cadell and his friends at the man’s country estate. From there, the party could supposedly see the city, and Germanus warned the group not to avert their gaze at any cost. Then, the saint had the group fast and pray and call to the heavens for divine protection. After all the ceremony had been completed, the grand finale of the spectacle arrived. As St. Germanus, Cadell and all of the chosen friends watched, great balls of fire allegedly rained down from the sky, setting the city ablaze and killing the tyrant. Nennius’ extravagant tale ends with Germanus baptizing Cadell and crowning him as the new king of Powys.
Written by C. Keith Hansley.
Picture Attribution: (The Angel of Revelation, painted by William Blake (1757–1827) in front of The Destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, by John Martin (1789–1854), both [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).
- History of the Britons by Nennius, translated by J. A. Giles (c. 19th century), republished by Oxford University Press, 2018.
- Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People (and relevant letters), translated by Leo Sherley-Pride, R. E. Latham and D. H. Farmer. New York: Penguin Classics, 2003.