St Germain – Selby’s Patron Saint

The Church of Selby Abbey was dedicated to Our Lord, the Blessed Virgin Mary and St. Germain. But though the dedication was a triple one, St Germain has always been regarded as our Patron Saint. He was born in the year 378 or 380 at Auxerre, France. In his early days Germain followed a military career and, it appears, at some time he practised as an advocate. As a soldier he was distinguished, becoming a ‘Duke’, or military leader, and sometimes he was referred to as ‘one of the six dukes of Gaul.’ In those pre-ecclesiastic days he married, his wife being described as ‘a lady of great quality in Rome,’ whose name was Eustachia. At that period Germain seems to have been a thorough man of the world. Nothing, indeed, is known of him in his disfavour, except that as a devotee of the chase he appears to have been somewhat callous, if not cruel, in his dealings with the spoils of the hunting-ground.

At that time Amator was the Bishop of Auxerre. He saw that in spite of his apparent worldliness, Germain had the makings of a saint in him. He had often remonstrated with him and tried to win him for the Church, but tin vain. One day, however, Germain was decoyed into the church at Auxerre. The doors were barred; Germain was seized and bound; and Bishop Amator forcibly cut off his locks, so giving him the first tonsure and bidding him live ‘as one who was destined to become a bishop.’

Instead of resenting the treatment, Germain quietly accepted his position. It was the turning-point in his career. His old life was abandoned, and very soon he was ordained deacon. He became a monk, his life in the cloister distinguished by a marvellous asceticism. For 30 years he is said never to have touched wheaten bread, wine, oil, pulse, or salt, his one daily meal being eaten in the evening; and sometimes he went without food altogether for a whole week at a time. For one ecclesiastical eminence to another he rose, till eventually he was consecrated Bishop of Auxerre. He was a great theologian and, among the chief things that he did, he came over to England to quell the Pelagian heresy. In that connection he preached a wonderful sermon at St Albans, astonishing all by his fervour, eloquence and learning, and he made many converts. Afterwards he visited many parts of England and Wales. He went to Cornwall and even visited the Isle of Man; and on one occasion, aided by his old military experience, he led the British soldiers against the Picts and Scots, winning the bloodless victory known as the ‘Alleluia Victory.’ No wonder that in the centuries that followed many churches in Great Britain were built in his honour, the most important of them all being the great and beautiful Abbey Church on the banks of the Yorkshire Ouse in Selby.

After a brilliant life as an ecclesiastic, Germain died in a good old age in the year 448, the place of his death being Ravenna, in Italy. That was on July 31st. But his body was taken by road to his native place of internment. The journey was one of two months’ duration, and his remains were honourably laid to rest in his Cathedral at Auxerre on October 1st, 448. These two dates explain the fact that the Festival of St Germain (for he was afterwards canonized and made a Saint) is kept by the Church on July 31st and October 1st. One is the annual commemoration of his death; the other that of his burial.