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The Alleluia Obelisk

In a field on the outskirts of Mold, opposite the 17th century Rhual Mansion, is a curiosity - the Alleluia Obelisk.  It was raised in 1736 by the landowner, Nehemiah Griffiths of Rhual to commemorate the traditional site and victory of a native British force, led by St Garmon (St Germanus of Auxerre) against an invading force of pagan Picts and Saxons, and which became known as the Alleluia Battle.


Germanus of Auxerre had arrived in Britain in 429, not long after the traditional date of the Roman withdrawal from the British Isles of 410.  His mission was to combat the rising tide of Pelagianism in Britain, an heretical Christian theology of the late 4th, early 5th centuries which held that humans were not born sinful and had free will to choose a path of righteousness or not - a notion that had gained much support throughout the early Christian world and had clearly spread, by the time of Germanus’ visit, to Pelagius’ homeland of Britain.  It had been condemned in 418 at the Council of Carthage, and is still in fact considered as heretical by the Roman Catholic Church to this day.  A delegation from Britain had requested help against the surge of popularity of Pelagianism and Bishops Germanus and Lupus of Troyes were chosen to visit the Island in order to confront the teaching directly.


Much of what we know of Germanus comes not from Bede, but rather the ‘Vita Sancti Germani’ written by Constantius of Lyon in around 480, and which details his two journeys to Britain (although there remains some doubt as to the veracity of a second visit).  As you would expect, the Vita is full of miracles and the successful demolition of the arguments of the adherents of Pelagius. However, another aspect of Germanus’ visit was that of his military leadership.  He is thought to have been a general before he became a bishop, and that would explain the wish of the native British in asking him to help them against the pagans, threatening invasion and the subjugation of the Christians in the British Isles.  That help asked for, was willingly given.


‘Their coming brought such a sense of security that you might have thought that a great army had arrived, to have such apostles for leaders was to have Christ Himself fighting in the camp.’

Constantius of Lyon, ‘Vita Sancti Germani’


The tale, as told in the Vita is vivid - a tremendous read.  The native British soldiers are said to have flown to baptism, and a church ‘built of leafy branches in readiness for Easter day on the plan of a city church, though set in a camp on active service.’ It would seem that this focus on piety, rather than the sword further emboldened the pagans, who assured themselves of an easy victory. Yet, the pagan advance had been spotted and Germanus took full command.  He made the decision to station his troops in a valley enclosed by steep mountains and was said to been organised ‘on a new model’ - presumably along remembered Roman strategies.  The Vita vividly describes the battle,


‘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 the 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 was repeated 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 save at least their skins. Many threw themselves into the river which they had just crossed at their ease, and were drowned in it.

Thus the British army looked on at its revenge without striking a blow, idle spectators of the victory 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.’

Constantius of Lyon, ‘Vita Sancti Germani’


The battle is also recalled in Bede’s ‘Ecclesiatical History of the English People’, written in around 731, who clearly had access to a copy of the Vita.  Both sources make much of the fact that the battle was essentially bloodless, other than the drownings of fleeing pagans.  However, no telling of the tale says anything of the actual location of the battle, other than references to a valley and some steep mountains, both of which are fairly plentiful in the British Isles.  It is impossible to gauge how or from where Nehemiah Griffiths gained his belief that his field, opposite his mansion, was the location of the battle.  Perhaps it was wishful thinking, perhaps an awareness of a long lived local tradition that he was privy to - which may, of course, have its roots in some truth.  We just cannot say.


However, it is worth remembering that the influence of St Germanus, or Garmon as he is better known in north east Wales, can be seen throughout the area.  There is of course, Llanarmon yn Ial and the church dedicated to him, its importance, and that of St Garmon reflected in it very likely being the commote of Ial (Yale). There are a very many holy wells dedicated to him, though curiously all are now seemingly lost.  There is also the curious tale of Benlli Gawr, a sort of sequel to the Alleluia Battle.  But perhaps the most interesting connection is Garmon’s inclusion upon the 9th century Eliseg’s Pillar, which states that the much reviled Vortigern was blessed by him - a curiosity in itself, and one which raises some questions about our traditional understanding of this ‘superbus tyrannus’.  Indeed, throughout north east Wales, the influence of St Garmon can be felt. Perhaps then we should not be so quick to dismiss the location of the Alleluia Battle as being in Nehemiah’s field.


Mention should be made about the historical veracity of the battle, which remains a little suspect.  The year given on the obelisk itself is 420, which is a good nine years before Germanus’ first mission to Britain. The traditional 429 date of the battle makes an acceptance of Saxon involvement a little difficult to credit - and more so as far west as Mold.  However, the Eliseg connection between Garmon and Vortigern, and the enduring belief that the latter was active in north Wales in the 5th century does make one wonder.  An alliance between the Saxons and the Picts is also difficult to accept.


Was then, the raising of the Alleluia Obelisk a whim then, of Nehemiah Griffiths - a rich man’s eccentricity?  Or was he recognising a distant muscle memory of myth, a nebulous echo of the past?  The Alleluia Obelisk stands now, a little wonky, much worn and weathered and surrounded by gently grazing cows - an evocative reminder of a distant battle.

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