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The Birthplace of St. Patrick in Somerset

Harry Jelley

The Saxon Shore
first published on
The Saxon Shore

Historians take great pleasure in locating the birthplaces of great figures from the past. This is particularly true when the birthplace has been the subject of heated debate for centuries, as is the case for St Patrick, the 5th century Romano-Briton who later became patron saint of Ireland. There have been claims and counterclaims. Strathclyde was once thought a possible birthplace for Patrick, presumably because of its proximity to Ulster. Several sites in South Wales have been suggested, as well as the area near Birdoswald on Hadrian's Wall. For various reasons, however, none of these provides a satisfactory solution.

It is my view that Patrick was in fact born in south-western England, in Somerset, at or near the village of Banwell, five miles east of Weston-super-Mare. A settlement of late Roman date is known in the area. The archaeology of the region, which was highly Romanised, suggests Somerset was a plausible location for Patrick's family estate - unlike some of the remoter locations suggested - while placename evidence supports a Somerset location directly. Saint Patrick's Somerset Birthplace
(click to enlarge)
Saint Patrick's Somerset Birthplace

by Harry Jelley

There is, in addition, an undated, unexplained earthwork in the form of a cross at Banwell, surrounded by a bank. A scheduled monument, it is listed by English Heritage as a Roman camp (which is unlikely), and is described in the local Sites and Monuments Record as a rabbit warren, for which there is also no evidence. I like to imagine the cross has a religious interpretation, constructed as a monument to Patrick by missionary Irish monks a few centuries after Patrick's lifetime, at a time when the memory of his birthplace survived.

The established facts of Patrick's life are few. He was captured aged 16 by Irish raiders and taken as a slave to Ireland, from where he is said to have escaped to Gaul before returning to Ireland as a missionary in 432 CE, founding Ireland's first Christian church at Armagh. Recent research disputes the traditional dates, suggesting Patrick may have lived a generation or so later.

In his Confessio, Patrick writes:

I had as my father the deacon Calpornius, son of the late Potitus, a priest, who belonged to the small town of Bannavem Taberniae; he had a small estate nearby, and it was there I was taken captive.

Further evidence of his childhood comes from his Letter to Coroticus, in which Patrick says his father was a decurion, a town councillor. The details are murky but the impression is of a well-to-do family, connected to a town, with a villa estate nearby.

`Bannavem Taberniae' is improbable Latin and it is usually amended to Bannaventa Berniae, a place that should - for reasons of historical plausibility - lie on the western side of Britain susceptible to Irish raids in an area of recognised villa settlement, such as Somerset.

Bannaventa Berniae is a Latinisation of a Celtic placename. Banna (root ban) is a Celtic word meaning bend, crook or peak. Venta occurs three times applied to tribal capitals - Winchester, Caerwent and Caistor in Norfolk (Venta Belgarum, Venta Silurum, Venta Icenorum) - where Venta indicates an area of local administration. Berniae arguably derives from a Celtic root bern meaning `gap' or `pass', as in the modern Irish bearna.

The further west one progresses in Britain the greater the survival of Celtic elements in modern placenames. Banwell, recorded in Asser's biography of King Alfred as Banuwille, and in a charter of AD904 as Banwylle, contains the Celtic element ban; and appropriately, overlooking Banwell, is an unusually shaped hill known as Crook Peak, perfectly fitting the meaning of the Celtic word. Wylle is Old English for `pool' or `spring'.

If Bannaventa Berniae became Banwell, we are assuming the retention of some elements of the original name, and the disappearance of others. This was a normal occurrence, and can be seen for example in the names of Winchester and Caerwent. However, around Banwell we do seem to find placename echoes of the lost original name. Venta is remembered in Winthill, where a villa was excavated in the 1960s. Winterstoke was a medieval hundred, of which Banwell was the capital manor. There is also a Winterhead hill, Wintreth in the Domesday Book, and the village of Winscombe (or Wintscombe).

As for Berniae, the 1841 Shipham Tithe Map portrays three fields named Bairn's Green, Bairn's Combe, and Little Bairn, all lying within a few hundred yards of the Winthill Villa. No trace of any family of this name can be found in the hundred years prior to 1841, and no earlier names of these fields are recorded. Can they preserve a memory of a Celtic placename element, bern? The idea is not impossible. Moreover, nearby lies the Churchill Gap, a pass through the Mendips used by the old main road from Bridgwater to Bristol (now the A38), which fits the meaning of the Celtic word.

During the 1960s two villas were excavated at Banwell. One, known as the Riverside villa, was a wealthy establishment with mosaics. The other, only half a mileaway, was at Winthill, with occupation lasting into the 5th century. The excavators found a post-Roman cemetery dug into the villa with bodies aligned east-west and without grave goods in the Christian fashion. Half a mile is unusually close for two villas, and evidence suggests that the Winthill site was not a villa, but a house in a small town. I believe this town was Bannaventa Berniae.

Fieldwork by local archaeologists over recent decades has produced large quantities of Roman pottery, coins, the odd burial, a Roman road surface, and building foundations around the `villa' site. For years, local opinion was that this was the site of an extensive Roman settlement, and this seemed to be confirmed when a pipeline was dug past the `villa' in 1994. The trench was overseen by AC Archaeology, who contracted local archaeologist Richard Broomhead to record and interpret anything revealed during the excavation. The narrow trench produced several substantial foundations of Romano-British date, part of a stone apsidal structure, and large amounts of pottery. The site has had no further excavation or geophysical survey.

A mysterious earthen cross lies in woods near Banwell. Its arms are about 20 metres long, aligned roughly on the four compass points, and the cross is surrounded by an almost square earthen bank. An excavation in 1961 to test its date and function proved inconclusive, but established that a continuous ditch originally lay on the inside of the bank, which appears to rule out the `official' English Heritage explanation of the site as a Roman camp.

The site is listed in the SMR as a rabbit warren. Earthen crosses, found mainly in Yorkshire, are usually interpreted as wind-breaks for livestock, and none has been shown by excavation to be a warren. The 1961 excavation showed that the underlying bedrock had been dug out to form the earthwork and make a ditch, which seems unnecessarily laborious for the building of a warren. Medieval windmills were sometimes built on cross-shaped mounds, but none as large as the cross at Banwell.

This configuration of cross and perimeter bank is in fact unique in Britain, and it seems not unreasonable to look for a unique explanation. Since Banwell lay within a Saxon royal estate which included the monastery given by King Alfred to Bishop Asser, and if Patrick had been born nearby, perhaps a religious interpretation is feasible.

Vigorous Irish evangelisation swept across Britain in the 6th-8th centuries, while at the same time the see of Armagh campaigned to establish its ecclesiastical supremacy in Ireland based on Patrick's supposed founding of Ireland's first church there. It is certain that there was an Irish interest in Patrick's birthplace, and in the work of the 7th century writer Muirchu we find: `Patrick came from the town of Bannavem Taberniae, not far from our sea . . . We have discovered for certain and beyond any doubt that this township is Ventre .. .'

I suggest that itinerant Irish ecclesiastics, or more likely residents of a monastery at Banwell or even at the Irish-inspired monastery at Malmesbury, erected a memorial at the place of Patrick's birth, in the absence of a known place of burial. Some six placenames around the cross containing the elements rod, rhod, or road could perpetuate the Old English rod, meaning `holy cross'.

A traditional Irish altar or grave, a leacht, a box shaped construction faced with stone, could have formed a cross if four were placed at right-angles, and this, I suggest, is what was created here.

There is an early tradition that the great abbey at nearby Glastonbury was jointly dedicated to St Patrick and the Virgin Mary. In the 12th century, William of Malmesbury mentions Patrick's `grave' at Glastonbury, and refers to the number of Irish pilgrims at the site. How can we explain this supposed Irish connection?

In 1091, the supposed remains of Saint Benignus were taken to Glastonbury from Meare in Somerset, as chronicled by John of Glastonbury. It may be that, in similar fashion, a dedication to Patrick at Banwell was taken over by Glastonbury, and later upgraded to a supposed `burial', a process completed after the great fire at the abbey of 1184 when a tomb to St Patrick was construced beside the altar.

Order his book, Saint Patrick's Somerset Birthplace, from Amazon!

The Birthplace of St. Patrick is Copyright 1998, Harry Jelley. All rights reserved. Used with permission.

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