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  Vortigern Studies > Vortigern > The Sources > Patrick

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The Sources
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Patrick - Confessio, Epistola
(late fifth century AD)
Robert Vermaat

Patrick is the first British source for the fifth century. His works are invaluable for theological subjects, but unfortunately add little to the understanding of the socio-political circumstances of the period. Patrick was born in the north of Britain, in an otherwise unknown town of Bannavem Taburniae (vico banavem taburniae), which may or may not be identical with a fort on Hadrian’s Wall, Bannaventa. He grew up on the country seat or small estate (villula) of his father Calpornius, a deacon, son of Potitus, a priest, where he was taken captive by Irish raider at the age of sixteen. He escaped back to Britain six years later, met with his parents and later travelled to Gaul, where he received ecclesiastical training. He became a deacon and eventually a bishop, but his lasting fame occurred when he went to Ireland. There he became the ‘apostle of the Irish’, converting thousands and laying the foundation for a Christian Ireland. Today, March 17th is accepted as the day he died, and celebrated universally as Saint Patrick's Day (incidentally, also the birthday of my daughter).

Saint PatrickPatrick wrote a number of works, of which we know but two, the Epistola (a letter written to Coroticus, complaining about his capturing Patrick’s converts as slaves) and the Confessio (a spiritual and personal autobiography), which was written later. Patrick’s life was described in Muirchú’s Life and the so-called Memoir by Tírechán, which were both composed in the second half of the seventh century. Patrick was a contemporary of Constantius of Lyon, and hagiography constructed a link between him and Germanus of Auxerre, though this is not confirmed by Constantius, who was Germanus’ biographer.

The exact floruit of Patrick is still a subject of lively debate. Irish annals agree upon an arrival in Ireland in 432, but give a conflicting date for his death: 461 and 492. Since we know from Prosper that Pope Celestine sent bishop Palladius to Ireland in 431, maybe we should date Patrick’s mission to a later date. In fact, it has been proposed that there were two Patricks:

  1. The first Palladius, whose years in Ireland were later usurped by Patrick’s disciples, the second the British Patrick;
  2. The first (a) Patrick, an unknown Gallic bishop of the same name, accompanying Palladius, the second the British Patrick;
  3. The British Patrick only, with a birth date c. 415, and his death in 492.

Either way, since we know that Patrick did not go to Gaul before he was at least 22, any dealings with Germanus from 437 onwards would be problematic, since Germanus would have died in that year, or shortly afterwards. Dating Patrick may remain impossible, and the only secure dates that we have are ‘after 404’ (quotes from Jerome’s Vulgate) and ‘before 497’ (conversion of the Franks). Both Dumville and Thompson urge us to leave the dating for what it is and walk away...


Unfortunately, but like many of his fellow-ecclesiastics, Patrick has little details about Britain (or Ireland, for that matter) for the researchers to mull over. His place of birth is an enigma, though most likely in the north, in the region of the Wall.

His dealings with Coroticus are described later by Muirchú, who makes him a king of Aloo, i.e. Alclud or Strathclyde in his chapter 'De conflictu sancti Patricii adversum Coirtech regum Aloo'. Aloo was to identified with the kingdom of 'Ail', which was mentioned by Bede, who clearly meant Alcluith, modern Dumbarton. This king 'Coirtech/Coroticus (though Patrick calls him only tyrannus, i.e. illegitimate ruler), has his own warband, deals with both British and Irish, and does not shy away from enslaving fellow-Christians. Though some commentators have interpreted Patricks words about Coroticus being both a ‘Roman’ and a ‘fellow-citizen’ (cives) by proposing that either he must be situated somewhere in Britain (for Strathclyde could hardly have belonged to the Roman province), or that ‘Roman’ has to be interpreted as ‘Catholic’. But Coroticus could be localized in Wales as well, or even in Ireland! As with the problems around the dates of Patrick, we should probably accept defeat here as well, for Patrick has not supplied enough details. If we would persist, however, and place Coroticus in Strathclyde, he can probably be dated to 460-70, which would favour a ‘later’ Patrick. However, on the basis of the harleian pedigrees, he can be assigned to 420-50.


I will not go too deeply into this subject at this point, but reserve that for a later article (Christianity in Saint Patrickfifth-century Britain). It will suffice to mention a few points though.

First, Patrick’s mission to Ireland, whether or not within a year of Palladius of some time later, was clearly connected with the ecclesiastical situation in Britain. Constantius mentioned a British synod that invited Germanus over, to be followed up within a very short time by the mission to the Irish in 431. We could thus interpret the mission of Germanus as a ‘re-establishment’ of the Papal influence in Britain, and Britain used as a jumping-board by Palladius or Patrick for the mission to Ireland.

More important though, is that this indicates that the British ecclesiastical organisation was still intact and active in the years around 430. Though the failure of the British church to accept Victorius new dating system for Easter by 457 could be seen as evidence for the collapse and isolation of the British church, the persistence of these synods into the sixth and seventh centuries points to its survival. Wood suggests that Britain was still subject to the Roman church [by 431], if not to the Emperor.


We should not look for any information about Vortigern in the works of Patrick, even though he was a contemporary. Patrick’s life was too far removed, both geographically and spiritually, to expect any information. Neither should we, of course, interpret this silence as negative proof for the existence of Vortigern.

Full (English) texts can be found at: http://www.iol.ie/~santing/patrick/patrickt.htm


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