And was the holy Lamb of God,
On Englands pleasant pastures seen!
- And did those feet, William Blake

fredag 26. juni 2015

The Swineherd King

In the preface to his hagiography of Edward the Confessor, Aelred of Rievaulx comments that no other royal house of Europe can look back at such a plethora of saintly kings and queens. However, according to a tradition picked up by Jacobus de Voragine in his Legenda Aurea, the genesis of the British line of monarchs was quite humble, if not downright lowly, as the first in the new line of kings was a swineherd. The story is found in the legend of Saint Germain of Auxerre (c.380-448), a remarkable figure of the early Catholic church and whose life has become saturated with exactly the kind of stories and myths that make his entry in the Legenda Aurea a very entertaining read. 

Saint Germain looking at the opening to the first lesson in an office lectionary
Paris - Bibl. Mazarine - ms. 0399, f.111v, Abbey of Saint-Magloire, Paris, early 15th century Courtesy of

Germain was born to a noble family. He received a very good education first at Arles and Lyons and then in Rome, and he entered into contact with the imperial court. Eventually, the emperor appointed him duke and ordered him to return to Gaul where he took up residence in his native Auxerre. In 418 he was consecrated bishop of Auxerre, and according to the legend this move from the ducal to the episcopal seat came about in a Pauline conversion, which is a story fit for another time.

After more than ten years in his office, in the early 430s, Germain travelled to Britain together with Lupus to combat the Pelagian heresy which was then thriving in Britain. According to the chronicle of Saint Prosper, this was commissioned by Pope Celestine, while Bede in his Ecclesiastical History claims that Germain was sent by a synod. Germain's journey to the British Isles has also been woven into one of the early lives of Saint Patrick, in which it is claimed that Patrick was part of Germain's retinue. The account of Germain's mission is so suffused with legend that the exact details are winnowed only with difficulty. Jacobus de Voragine covers it very briefly, saying that the two bishops were welcomed by local clergy who had been told of their arrival by demons whom the bishops had driven out of the possessed. This appears to be a garbled version of Bede's account, as Bede tells us that the demons first tried to capsize Germain's ship in the Channel, and when they were chased away they came to England and there took possession of some of the Britons. When Germain came ashore, however, he freed the possessed and chased the demons further away.

It is likely that Jacobus drew on Bede for part of his account of Saint Germain, for Jacobus had access to Bede for some of his legends, though evidently he has here been writing from memory, or has received the story from a faulty source. We know that Jacobus sometimes transmits English material rather imperfectly, and in a previous blogpost I wrote about when he confused Edmund of East Anglia and Edward the Confessor.

Saint Germain looking the other way
Chaumont - BM - ms. 0033, f.319, Breviary, Use of Langres, c.1481
Courtesy of

As for Germain's campaign against Pelagianism, Jacobus - unlike the far more prolix Bede - merely states that the saint "convinced the heretics of their error" and that was that. Bede then claims that the Catholics went to the shrine of Saint Alban so as to ratify the conversion with the saint's blessing. Jacobus' silence on the matter suggests again that he is not writing this legend with the Ecclesiastical History at hand.

After a while, heresy resumed its grip in Britain and Germain was sent back to deal with it, and it is here we learn of the origins of the British monarchy. Jacbous tells us:

On one occasion while he was preaching in Britain, the king of Britain refused to give shelter to him and his companions. One of the king's swineherds, after feeding his charges and receiveing his wage at the palace,was on the way home and saw Germain and his fellows in sorry straits due to hunger and the cold. He kindly took them to his cottage and had his one and only calf killed for their supper. When the meal was finished, the bishop had all the calf's bones laid upon their hide, and as he prayed over them, the calf stood up whole and entire. The next day Germain accosted the king and asked him bluntly why he had refused him hospitality. The king overcome with astonishment, could think of nothing to say in response. Germain said: "Begone then, and leave the kingdom to a better man!" Then, by God's command, he had the swineherd and his wife summoned, and, to the amazement of all, proclaimed him king. Hence the monarchs who have ruled the British people since then are descendants of that swineherd.
- Jacobus de Voragine, Legenda Aurea (translated by William Granger-Ryan)

Miniature of Saint Germain
MS Egerton 1070, Book of Hours, France, c.1410
Courtesy of British Library

There are several noteworthy things in this passage. First of all, we note the similarity between the resusciation of the calf and the story of the rams of Thor, the Norse god of thunder, which could be flayed and eaten in the evening and be alive and well in the morning. Secondly, the legend casts a Biblical shine on the early British house of kings, since the British kings originate from a swineherd, just as the kings of Israel in Judaic tradition are descendants of the shepherd Saul, anointed by God's prophet Nathan. Since Germain is here acting on God's command, he effectively takes the role of Nathan and replaces the British line of kings with another, hand-picked according to Biblical principles.

I do not know where Jacobus came across this legend, it is certainly not Bede.



Bede, The Ecclesiastical History of the English People, translated by Bertram Colgrave, Oxford World's Classics

Jacobus de Voragine, Legenda Aurea, translated by William Granger-Ryan, Princeton University Press, 2012


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