Vortigern Studies

What's New I Sitemap I Bibliography I Vortigern I Vortigern Studies l Wansdyke I POLLS I LINKS l Sitemaster I FAQs
about Vortigern Studies l Games I Arthurian Collection I View Guestbook I Sign Guestbook l Webrings

  Vortigern Studies > Vortigern > The Sources > Constantius

Vortigern Studies Index



The Sources
click here

Constantius of Lyon - de Vita sancta Germani
(after AD 480)
Robert Vermaat

Though we know that Constantius of Lyon was born to a noble family, most of the life of this 5th century historian remains obscure. His birth-date is not known, but we know that he was old and infirm when he began research for his book by c. 480, so a date between 420 and 430 may not be too far off the mark. Constantius was an orator and a poet (he was, like Faustus of Riez, a friend of Sidonius Appolinaris), but later became a cleric, probably a priest. Though he is called ‘of Lyon’, there is no hard evidence of that, only the acquaintance with Patience, bishop of Lyon and Sidonius, who was also of Lyon.

There or elsewhere, he began a biography of the bishop and later saint Germanus of Auxerre. Constantius’ book, de Vita Germani ('on the Life of Germanus') was finished before 494, and dedicated to Patiens. It describes in a vivid description the life of the bishop´s life in Gaul in the second quarter of the fifth century. Though the book contains no dates, is mentions plenty of place-names, personal names, details about titles, ranks and offices. Unfortunately, the information about Britain does not include these details. This is worrying, because the rest of the book is full of them. Wood believed that Constantius wrote the Vita as a handbook for episcopal behaviour in the 470s and 480s, as it deals not in the first place with the details of Germanus’ life, but his dealings with the problems that arose from the incursions of the barbarians, such as arrangements for famine-relief, negotiations with occupying troops, or regional defence (the British visit!). Though having said this, we should not forget the time and circumstances of writing (the encroachment of the Burgundians), which might indicate that Constantius wrote his book also with the intention of raising the morale of the citizens.

The question has been asked why Constantius seemed so indifferent in various matters, even when it concerned his hero? For instance, nothing is revealed about Germanus’ career before he became bishop, something that would interest us very much in regard to the military aspect of his dealing with Britain and the uprising in Armorica. But maybe the indifference was really nothing more than a bodily restriction: Constantius did write fifty or sixty years after most events, and thus could not rely on may eye-witness reports. Furthermore, he was old when he started his research, whereas the times were not exactly safe anymore, so that research in far-off place might well have been impossible.

Dating Germanus

If we accept the evidence of the Gesta Pontificum of Auxerre, Germanus held office for thirty years and twenty-five days. Since the Vita Amatoris states that his predecessor Amator died on Wednesday May 1st, the possible year of that death can only be 407, 412 or 418. Hence, the year of Germanus’ death (and that of the second visit to Britain), can only be 437, 442 or 448. The last one is usually accepted, because of the possible involvement of Germanus in the deposition of Hilary of Arles, which took place in 444. Added to this is the mentioning of the military commander Sigisvult as a patrician by Constantius, a title he is not taken to have held before 440.

However, the last two reasons may be defective. Constantius, who as we have seen was not a great lover of detail, could have been mistaken about the chronology of Sigisvult’s career. Even more so, we know that Hilary was eventually deposed at some time after his last described contact with Germanus, who was not personally involved in Hilary’s downfall. Also, the later Vita Severi describes Germanus’ funeral procession passing through Vienne during the pontificate of Pascentius, who was dead by 441. Lastly, the Chronicle of 452 describes under 435-437 the downfall of Tibatto, the rebel on whose account Germanus travels to Ravenna, where he dies. This would put Germanus’ death at Sunday May 26th, 437 (according to the evidence from the Vita Amatoris), although later sources, the Martyrologium Hieronymianum and the De Gestis episcoporum Autissiodorensium, mention July 31st. Wood prefers a date between 435 and 437, although the last year would fit perfectly. Interesting though, this year is the year in which, according to Historia Brittonum, the battle of Guoloph takes place, which seems somehow connected to the reign of Vortigern.


Even without details, this work is still of great interest to us, as it gives us some tantalizing scraps of information about Britain in the middle of the fifth century. These come with the stories of two visits by Germanus to Britain. Germanus had been asked by Pope Celestine to act as his envoy in a severe case of heresy, to go to Britain and suppress the Pelagians there, who had corrupted the churches of Britain. Pelagius, who was born in Britain, had been preaching in Rome from 410 onwards, and had been attacked by Augustine in 412, so that his teachings were banned in 418 by the Pope. By 425, Pelagian bishops had been banned from Gaul, so we can look on this action as a logical follow-up. The circumstances, however, are far from clear.

The first visit
The first of these two visits can be dated to 429, though, as Constantius supplies no dates, only with the help from
Prosper of Aquitaine:

Prosper, Chronicle c.1301 (AD 429)
Agricola, a Pelagian, the son of the Pelagian bishop Severianus, corrupted the British churches by the insinuation [insinuatio] of his doctrine. But at the persuasion [insinuatio] of the deacon Palladius, Pope Celestine sent Germanus, bishop of Auxerre, as his representative, and having rejected the heretics, directed the British to the catholic faith.

Prosper, writing only four years later in 433, stated thus that it was Palladius that initiated the visit of Germanus, or rather it was Pope Celestine. Constantius, though writing half a century later in 480, remembered otherwise:

De Vita Germani, 3.12
About this time a deputation from Britain came to tell the bishops of Gaul that the heresy of Pelagius had taken hold of the people over a great part of the country and help ought to be brought to the Catholic faith as soon as possible. A large number of bishops gathered in a widely-attended synod to consider the matter and all turned in help to the two who in everybody’s judgement were the leading lights of religion, namely Germanus and Lupus, apostolic priests who through their merits were citizens of heaven, though their bodies were on earth.

This is one of the occasion where we may have some doubts about Constantinus’ representation of events. All bishops? At a large synod, of which nothing is known from other sources? This is getting very unlikely, even more so when we read in what manner Germanus and Lupus are described. Apart from this propaganda-like description of the virtues of both men (after all, de Vita Germani was a hagiography, so we should not expect otherwise), both sources agree on the reason for the visit, the Pelagian influence on the church(es) of Britain.

The first miracle is braving a fierce storm, which is usually the reason for putting the departure during early spring (though of course storms do occur in summer). The first thing our heroes do after the landing, is travel at leisure through the countryside. Only after some days they meet a large number of people and hold a theologian debate. Here the Pelagians, all dressed up in rich clothes, fully display their vanity. This can’t be anything other than hyperbole, as the statements about Germanus above likewise are, for the Pelagians were usually abhorrent of vanity and displaying richness. It must show their negative attitudes to the reader, and predict their doom – they (of course) loose the debate, and they are led away in exile. Though this is not explicitly stated by Constantine, it is stated by Prosper, who tells us that Pope Celestine freed the British provinces from the infection of heresy:

Prosper, Contra Collatorum, 21
Since he shut out from that remote place in the Ocean some enemies of grace who had seized upon the soil of their birth-place

Clearly, the Pope exiled some Pelagians from Britain, the land in which Pelagius had been born. Since Celestine died in 432, and Prosper wrote in 433/4, this reference can only point to the first visit.

After this victory, Germanus goes on to do some miracles, healing a blind girl, and visiting the shrine of the martyr St. Alban (presumably at Verulamium/St. Albans). The geography of this visit is non-existent, but I agree with Thompson that Germanus, who we know crossed from Boulogne, probably travelled through Kent (preaching), held the debate at London (where else would Pelagianism be a threat?), before visiting St Albans in a very short period of time. On the return visit, the saint rescues himself from a blaze, that threatens a large built-up area, which can’ t really be nowhere else but London.

Travelling back during Lent of that same year, Germanus and Lupus are suddenly called upon to support British forces in repelling an attack by raiders. It is possible to situate this event in Kent, even though several authors have insisted in putting this battle in north Wales (because of the dedications there to ‘Germanus/Garmon’) or in Yorkshire (because of the presence of Picts). But as we know from Ammianus Marcellinus, raiding Picts and Saxons were encountered by Theodosius in 367 in that same area. Germanus took command (uninvited) of the British forces:

De Vita Germani, 3.15,16
Meanwhile the Saxons and Picts had joined forces to make war upon the Britons. The latter had been compelled to withdraw their forces within their camp and, judging their forces to be totally unequal to the contest, asked the help of holy prelates. The latter sent back a promise to come, and hastened to follow it. Their coming brought such a sense of security that you might have thought that a great army had arrived. ... great numbers of this pious army sought the grace of baptism. ... The soldiers paraded still wet from baptism, faith was fervid, the aid of weapons was little thought of, and all looked for help from heaven.
Meanwhile the enemy had learnt of the practices and appearance of the camp. They promised themselves an easy victory over practically disarmed troops and pressed on in haste. But their approach was discovered by scouts, and ... the army ... began to take up their weapons and prepare for battle and Germanus announced that he would be their general. He chose some light-armed troops and made a tour of the outworks. In the direction from which the enemy were expected he saw a valley enclosed by steep mountains. Here he stationed an army on a new model, under his own command.
By now the savage host of the enemy was close at hand and Germanus rapidly circulated an order that all should repeat in unison the call he would give as a battle-cry. Then, while the enemy were still secure in their belief that their approach was unexpected, the bishops three times chanted the Alleluia. All, as one man, repeated it and the shout they raised rang through the air and echoed many times in the confined space between the mountains. The enemy were panic-stricken, thinking that the surrounding rocks and the very sky itself were falling on them. Such was their terror that no effort of their feet seemed enough to save them. They fled in every direction, throwing away their weapons and thankful if they could at least save their skins. Many threw themselves into a river which they had just crossed with ease, and were drowned in it. Thus the British army looked on at its revenge without striking a blow, idle spectators of the victory they achieved. The booty strewn everywhere was collected; the pious soldiery obtained the spoils of a victory from heaven. The bishops were elated at the rout of the enemy without bloodshed and a victory gained by faith and not by force.

The last words show the real meaning of this incident, as it strengthens the miracle performed by Germanus. It is very tempting to thing of Germanus’ role here as that of Severinus in Noricum (Austria), only a few years later. Germanus, who had been a military commander, possibly on the continental variant of the Saxon Shore, would have been well placed to take on a military command, and the fact that he was not invited (but unopposed) may point to a different role than ‘just’ a visiting bishop! However, Constantius is very vague about this battle, as he is vague about the whole visit. Therefore, any suggestions about other reasons for Germanus’ visit (such as a military re-occupation or just a rescue-expedition) must remain what they are.

The second visit
The second visit is not confirmed by any other source. Since the sparse details of this visit resemble the first one, some have questioned the authenticity of this second visit, seeing it merely as a doublet, which was not recognized by Constantius. This may be correct, as maybe is shown by the vigorous debate over the proper date of this visit. Most scholars place the second visit in the years 445-448, but Thompson has suggested 437, while Ian Wood proposes the earliest, in 435.

Germanus’ visit to St.Albans is confirmed by the Passio Albani, which credits the discovery of the martyr’s tomb to Germanus. The Passio is a Merovingian text, probably composed at Auxerre, and written close to the sixth century and therefore very close to the Vita itself. It describes the town, the tomb, but also the arena, which might thus reflect original conditions of the fifth century. The multiple stress on confession against good deeds make it a possible early anti-Pelagian work, which explains the inclusion of Alban into the visit by Germanus. Wood sees the whole episode as an attempt to associate the cult of the British martyr with continental orthodoxy. Germanus’ second visit was, however, confirmed by the Vita Genouefae, which according to Wood goes back to a sixth-century original.

Whatever the date, Germanus, this time accompanied by Severus, returned to Britain after word had spread of growing influence of Pelagianism. Curiously enough, most of the flock seems to have been faithful, which makes one wonder what actually prompted this not altogether easy journey (Germanus was c. 60 or years old). While over there, Germanus heals a sick child (again, though now a boy) of a man of influence (again), and gets to deport a few remaining Pelagians (again).

The geographical information is even more vague with this second visit. Though it has been supposed that Germanus landed somewhere else this time, the reference that he found his flock "as he had left them" may well point to a return to the same locality, whether that was Kent and London or not. In any case, even though Germanus had "hasted" back to Britain at hearing the reports, nothing seemed wrong, and no activities are reported this time. After at short visit, Germanus leaves Britain for the last time, taking back Pelagian prisoners. When arriving in Gaul, he is asked to mediate between Armorican rebels and Goar, king of the Alans, who was sent by Aetius to quell the rebellion. Germanus travels to Ravenna, to obtain an amnesty. But while there, he falls ill and dies.


Even though the Vita Germani is very vague, both geographically as well as in dating, this book of Constantius is very interesting to the study of Vortigern. Although Vortigern is never mentioned nor hinted at, the book can give us some answers. For one, the visits of Germanus take place in the exact time that Vortigern is supposed to have reigned, according to the Historia Brittonum. Vortigern succeeded in 425 and invited the Saxons in 428, right before Germanus’ visit! So, if Germanus indeed travelled through Kent, were Vortigern’s federates already present there, or were they at that time fighting the Picts? If so, what were the Picts doing in Kent at that time?

There is the British army, which is clearly more that a massed troop of local militia, for even if they seem ‘practically disarmed’ (maybe only in the eyes of the enemy), they have a camp to withdraw into, and lightly armed forces to be selected from the main force. We can also ask who led the British army originally – maybe Vortimer, who is related to have commanded the British forces? We know that a son of Vortigern was ‘blessed’ by Germanus from both the Historia Brittonum (
Faustus) as well as the Pillar of Elise (Britu), but also Geoffrey of Monmouth (Vortimer). Either (or all) of these could have been met by the later saint.

Though there have been some comments on the apparent lack of spirit or quality of the British forces, we can deduct from Constantius’ account that they were well-organised and had been aware of the invaders’ presence for some time, despite the pirate’s ideas of an ambush. The fact that the enemy was defeated without violence tells rather more of hagiography than that is does about the readiness of the British soldiers.

No government is mentioned by Constantius. No kings, bishops, local rulers, apart from a 'man of tribunical power' in the first, and a certain Elafius, 'chief man of the region' during the second visit. Thomspon went as far as to state that no government was present in Britain after the revolt of 410, when the lower classes would have shaken off the Roman government. I believe, with many other historians, that this view is too simple a solution, and that any contact between Germanus and the British authorities was either of a different nature, did not take place because he averted it, or was neglected by Constantius. I mean, Germanus might not encounter a king or any other secular head of government, he does not even meet with one single bishop! Though Constantius does not tell us who made up the delegation that invited Germanus, I think it would go too far to suppose that all British bishops were Pelagian.. We may assume that Constantius has (again) failed to fill in the details.

There have been many speculations about the role that Vortigern would or would not have played in these visits. Though his role can be wholly neglected if one would deny all dealings between him and Germanus in the Historia Brittonum, or else simply put Vortigern's floruit in the later 440s, I believe there was more to it than that. The fact that Vortigern probably came to power in 425 (with a possible religious background), after which the British catholics raised the alarm about Pelagianism gaining ground, is too much of a coincidence. But much, if not all of Germanus' hunting down of Vortigern in the Historia Brittonum is fantasy: e.g., Vortigern's 'son' Faustus could never have been raised by Germanus, who died the same year of his second visit! There may have been an underlying tradition of animosity, but I firmly believe that Constantius would never have left out such a success by Germanus, had it really happened. I will go deeper into this in the article about 'Germanus and Vortigern - did they ever meet?' (in preparation).

For excerpts from the English translation of the Vita sancta Germani, click here.


  • Constantius of Lyon: The Life of St. Germanus of Auxerre, eds. Thomas Noble and Thomas Head, translators, in: Soldiers of Christ: Saints' Lives from Late Antiquity and the Early Middle Ages, (Pennsylvania State University Press, 1994), pp. 75-106.*
  • Muhlberger, Steven (1990): The Fifth Century Chroniclers. Prosper, Hydatius and the Gallic Chronicler of 452, (Leeds).*
  • Snyder, Christopher A. (1998): An Age of Tyrants, Britain and Britons AD 400-600, (Stroud).*
  • Thomas, Charles (1981): Christianity in Roman Britain to AD 500, (London repr. 1993).*
  • Thompson, E.A. (1984): Saint Germanus of Auxerre and the End of Roman Britain, Studies in Celtic History 6, (Woodbridge).*
  • Wood, Ian N. (1984): The End of Roman Britain: Continental Evidence and Parallels, in: Lapidge and Dumville, Gildas: New Approaches, pp. 1-26.*

VortigernStudies is copyright © Robert Vermaat 1999-2007. All rights reserved