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The saint who helped keep Christianity alive as the Roman empire crumbled

A statue of Germanus in the Église Saint-Germain l’Auxerrois in Paris

In AD 410 the leaders of Britain, attacked by Irish and Picts raiders and increasingly by Saxon pirates on its east coast, appealed to Rome for help. The answer was crushing: “Look after your own affairs.”

The empire was crumbling, and the Roman part of the island would endure two or three centuries of conflict and anarchy as the light of Christianity and civilisation were extinguished.

Yet the faith and civilisation of Europe was kept alive in pockets by a few individuals, among them Germanus of Auxurre, a Gaulish bishop and one of the few chroniclers of post-Roman Britain. He visited the country at some point around 429, when archaeological evidence suggests that currency had been replaced by barter and the cities were being evacuated in the face of the Saxon onslaught.

Raised in one of the noblest families in Gaul in the latter portion of the fourth century, Germanus had court connections and married Eustachia, a friend of the emperor, who made Germanus one of six governors of Gaul.

His path to the priesthood was an unusual one, to say the least. The Duke, as he was then styled, fell out with the local bishop, St Amator, by hanging hunting trophies on a tree that had been used for pagan worship, and when Germanus was away the bishop had the tree cut down and the trophies burned.

Fearing that Germanus would kill him, the elderly Amator asked for permission for his enemy to succeed him, and when he arrived at the church the bishop forced the crozier on him. (The physical forcing of the symbols of office was not an uncommon occurrence in early medieval Europe.) He was consecrated in 418, aged 40, and proved to be an excellent shepherd, helping the poor during a very bleak period and building monasteries.

In 429 the Romans withdrew from Britain and the bishops of Gaul chose to send Germanus and his friend Lupus of Troyes to visit the island and rid it of Pelagianism. Along the way they passed through Nanterre and saw a young girl who would become St Genevieve of Paris.

Having defeated the heresy, they visited St Alban, and afterwards he led the Britons in a victory against Saxon raiders. This was the period of the British leader Vortigen, who made the mistake of asking Jutes to settle in Cantium, and of the slightly later mysterious figures who may have inspired Arthur. Germanus was even depicted in the 2004 film King Arthur.

Whether he made a second visit to Britain is unknown. He died in Ravenna while petitioning the government to show mercy to the people of Armorica, today’s Britanny, and is buried at the Abbey of Saint-Germain d’Auzerre.

His cult spread across northern France, although there are also a number of churches in Cornwall that bear his name. He also had a great influence on the Celtic Church that thrived in the islands, but it was not until the arrival of St Augustine of Canterbury in 597 that the Saxon-controlled parts of the island returned to the faith.