The "Alleluia Battle": St. Germanus and Britons Ambush Picts and Their Allies

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The "Alleluia Battle": St. Germanus and Britons Ambush Picts and Their Allies

East & West Roman Empires, as divided by Theodosius in AD 395
(Unless otherwise noted, all illustrations are courtesy of Wikipedia)

Today in Military History: April 10, AD 429

Today's military history offering takes place in the British Isles, between the withdrawal of Roman soldiers from the island and the rise the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms. In fact, it really wasn't much of a battle, but we'll get to that eventually…


During the late third and early fourth century AD, the Roman Empire was experiencing internal trauma from which it would not recover. The empire had grown so large, that four men were now required to govern it. In about AD 306, Flavius Valerius Constantinus (later Constantine the Great, first Christian emperor of Rome) was proclaimed "Caesar" and became one of the four rulers of the Roman Empire. His portion of the empire included modern-day, England, Wales, France, Spain, and Portugal.

Remains of colossal statue of Constantine the Great, Capitoline Museum, Rome (The head is 2.5 meters tall…)
Remains of colossal statue of Constantine the Great, Capitoline Museum, Rome
(The head is 2.5 meters tall…)

In 310, Constantine became involved in a major Roman civil war. Consequently, he took a large portion of his army from Britain to the European continent. This act began nearly a century of Roman desertion of the people of Britain. By the mid-fourth century, more Roman troops were pulled from Britain. As a result, Picts from Scotland, raiders from Ireland, and Anglo-Saxon pirates from northern Europe began launching large-scale raids on British seacoast cities and towns.

In the year 407 the last Roman troops – likely the Legio II "Augusta" – were withdrawn from Briton, partly to pull back the Roman frontier as an expedient against barbarian invasions on the continent. Three years later, a number of Romano-British leaders wrote to Emperor Honorius, asking him to send troops to help them against the various barbarians mentioned above. Unfortunately, the emperor replied that the Britons must look to their own defense, as he had no soldiers to spare.

As a result, the Romano-British formed a number of small kingdoms and hired large numbers of Anglo-Saxons as foederati to defend their kingdoms. Foederati were non-Romans who agreed to serve the Roman Empire in exchange for pay, loot, and land. Even with the addition of these barbaric tribesmen, post-Roman Britain was still fighting for its life as more and more Anglo-Saxons invaded the island.


After Constantine declared Christianity to be the state religion of the Roman Empire, many Britons adopted the new religion. However, Britain's remote location on the fringes of the empire made it difficult for the British Christians to maintain their faith. This is especially true as they were threatened by such pagans as the Irish, the Picts, and the Anglo-Saxons.

Pelagius, from a 17th century Calvinist print
Pelagius, from a 17th century Calvinist print

Another threat to Romano-British culture was the advent of Pelagianism. This was a doctrine attributed to Pelagius (AD 354-420/440). He was an ascetic monk, possibly born in the British Isles, who later moved to Rome to teach. Eventually, he promulgated the outlines of his doctrine and travels to Palestine and North Africa. Pelagius gained a number of adherents, even acquiring some in Britain. However, his doctrine was later rejected and he was declared a heretic.

Pelagianism stated that original sin did not taint human nature and that mortal will is still capable of choosing good or evil without special Divine aid. Thus, Adam's sin was "to set a bad example" for his progeny, but his actions did not have the other consequences imputed to original sin. Pelagianism views the role of Jesus as "setting a good example" for the rest of humanity (thus counteracting Adam's bad example) as well as providing an atonement for our sins. In short, humanity has full control, and thus full responsibility, for obeying the Gospel in addition to full responsibility for every sin (the latter insisted upon by both proponents and opponents of Pelagianism). According to Pelagian doctrine, because humans are sinners by choice, they are therefore criminals who need the atonement of Jesus Christ. Sinners are not victims; they are criminals who need pardon.

Saint Germanus to the Rescue!

Little is known of Germanus's early life, though a hagiography of his life written about 480 states that he studied law and was a provincial governor. He was apparently initiated into the priesthood against his will, but it changed his life virtually overnight. He became a devout son of the church.

Saint Germanus of Auxerre (c. 378-c. 448) Stained glass window in Truro Cathedral, Cornwall, UK
Saint Germanus of Auxerre (c. 378-c. 448)
Stained glass window in Truro Cathedral, Cornwall, UK

In the year 418 Germanus was ordained as the bishop of Auxerre a town in what is today the Burgundy region of France. Eleven years later, an assembly of Gaulish bishops, deeply concerned about the effects of Pelagianism in Britain, sent Germanus to Britain. He arrived in Britain early in the year to debate the adherents of Pelagius. Accompanied by Bishop Lupus of Troyes, Germanus sought out the leaders of the Pelagian heresy. [There is a church tradition that among the many servants that followed the two bishops was a student of the bishop named Patrick, who would become important to the people of Ireland.]

Germanus and Lupus confronted the British clergy at a public meeting before a huge crowd in Britain. The Pelagians were described as being 'conspicuous for riches, brilliant in dress, and surrounded by a fawning multitude'. The bishops debated and, despite having no popular support, Germanus was able to defeat the Pelagians using his superior rhetoric (no doubt helped by his legal training).

Shortly afterwards, Germanus began visiting a number of areas of Britain, mainly Cornwall, to bolster support for the Catholic Church and the Augustinian teachings of divine grace. There is also a story that Germanus healed the son of a local militia commander suffering from an unknown disease.

The "Alleluia" Battle

Pictish light infantryman, AD 400-850 (Illustration courtesy of
Pictish light infantryman, AD 400-850
(Illustration courtesy of

In early April of 429, Germanus was in Wales, continuing his theological tour of Britain. While celebrating Easter (which occurred that year on April 8), he received word that a large raiding party of Picts and "Saxons" had landed on the northeast coast of Wales and was ravaging the countryside. Germanus decided to take the lead himself in this matter, owing to his former life as a provincial governor in Gaul. He gathered a force of local Welshmen, baptized them all, then set off to meet the invaders.

Romano-British light infantryman, AD 400-945 (Illustration courtesy
Romano-British light infantryman, AD 400-945
(Illustration courtesy

[The main source for this confrontation comes from the "Life of St. Germanus" written in about 480 by Constantius of Lyon. It is the first recorded battle of the Dark Ages in Britain. Some historians speculate that the "Saxons," though probably present in large numbers in the British Isles, were actually Irish pirates looking for slaves, due to the proximity of the Irish Sea to northern Wales. No figures are given for either opponent, though probably were not large.]

Wales in the Roman Era


Germanus and his small force of militiamen traveled to the northeastern part of Wales (in what is today Flintshire) near the modern-day town of Mold. [If you consult the map above, Mold is located approximately half-way between the forts at Deva and Plas Adda.] One chronicle states that they discovered the camp of the raiders down in a small valley a few days after Easter. Another history says it was on the night before Easter. The Picts and Saxons (Irish?) were unprepared for what happened next.

Romano-British javelinman, c. AD 400-945 (Illustration courtesy of
Romano-British javelinman, c. AD 400-945
(Illustration courtesy of

According to the version stating it took place on the eve of Easter, Germanus began holding an outdoor Easter service. At the end of the service, he ordered his small band of fighters to spread themselves out on the hills surrounding the marauders. He told each group to build some huge fires, but wait until the signal to light them. At some point after midnight, Germanus ordered the men of his group to strike their shields with their weapons, light their signal fire, and begin to shout, "Alleluia! Alleluia!"

The Picts and their companions were taken by surprise by the lights and the shouting which reverberated off the local hills. The superstitious barbarians thought they were surrounded by a huge force of angry Britons. They promptly panicked, and began running in terror. At one point the raiders began crossing a local river, and some of the barbarians drowned in the cold mountain stream. These men were the only casualties of the "Alleluia Battle."


Germanus continued to travel throughout Britain for several months, combating the Pelagian heresy and doing all he could to see that the Catholic Church in the British Isles would survive and thrive. He returned to Auxerre to resume his duties. He is thought to have died in the year 448 in Ravenna, which had become the administrative center of the West Roman Empire.

Footnote #1: It was pointed out to me by a co-worker that the account of the "Alleluia Battle" sounds remarkably similar to the Biblical accounts of Gideon (chapters 6 through 8 of the Book of Judges) and his victory over the Midianites and the Amalekites. Perhaps Constantius of Lyon, the author of St. Germanus's hagiography, used it as the basis of the accounts of Germanus's victory. Or, perhaps Germanus himself adopted the tactics from his own reading of the Bible.

Footnote #2: St. Germanus is thought to have made a second trip to Britain, possibly at some time between 437 and 440. Some historians date the "Alleluia Battle" to that time period. If that is so, then Easter (and the approximate date of the "Alleluia Battle") was April 11 of 437, March 27 of 438, April 16 of 439, or April 7 of 440. [I owe this information to a website of the Astronomical Society of South Australia ( ) entitled "Easter Dating Method."]

Footnote #3: I owe a great deal of the information for this post to the book, "Battles of the Dark Ages: British Battlefield AD 410 to 1065" by Peter Marren (Pen & Sword Books, Ltd., 2006).

Footnote #4: In the 2004 movie "King Arthur" St. Germanus makes an appearance – portrayed by Italian actor Ivano Marescotti. This is, of course, pure "history vs. Hollywood," considering the fact that Germanus's last mission to Britain took place 25-30 years prior to the film's setting. The heretic monk Pelagius also appears in "King Arthur" – portrayed by Welsh actor Owen Teale. However, his scenes ended up on the cutting room floor, and are only available on the DVD extended edition.

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