The History of St Patrick Pt 4

by JoHarrington

In the final part of St Patrick's story, he takes on those who would really like him to shut up; and takes a stand against slavery.

Born into a wealthy Romano-British family, St Patrick was seized as a teenager by Irish slavers. He spent a terrifying six years struggling just to stay alive on an Irish hillside.

The voice of God sounded to him in a dream, causing him to flee his captors. Patrick went on to study in a French monastery in order to become a priest. He ended up ordained as one of the youngest bishops of his time.

Patrick's mission took him back to Ireland, where he worked relentlessly to evangelize the Irish. He was very good at it; and that earned him enemies.

St Patrick Figurine

The Ravening Wolves of Coroticus

Sometime around 450, St Patrick lost his temper. It was under a severe amount of provocation though.

Image: St Patrick Stained Glass WindowOn the northern coast of Ireland, a whole community of newly baptized Christians were just waking up.  It was a new day in a new faith and the future felt pure and good. 

It was going to be anything but.

Patrick was no longer there.  In his relentless march, back and forth across Ireland, he had already moved on.  He had very much been in evidence yesterday though.  Those converting to Christianity had donned white robes; and lined up to speak the words and receive oil on their foreheads.  All were anointed under Patrick.

Lost in the memory and trusting in the new God, the community did not see the forces of Coroticus coming.  The violence was immense.  The armies wore the iron, and bore the training, of Rome.  They cut through the Irish settlement like it was nothing.  Bodies lay strewn across the ground.  Homes were looted for Celtic gold.  Slaves were taken.

Someone, at least, must have escaped.  Someone raced down the road after the huge pedestrian train of St Patrick and his followers.  Someone found and told them. 

It was a slap in the face to Patrick personally.  Coroticus was Romano-British and he was a Christian.  Yet he'd taken Patrick's Irish converts as slaves.   Coroticus had killed his brethren of the faith; and taken more as slaves.  Slaves!

The teenager inside the man must have shivered.  The incomprehensible had happened again. Once Patrick had been taken in exactly the same way, but by Irish Pagans from a Christian British villa.  He could picture it all too well.  He had lived it. 

Only this time the disrespect hit in a different way.  It undermined his mission.  It sent a loud, wide message to the Irish that the Christian God could not protect them.  Things like this did not happen when Morrighan had Her due.

Patrick remained calm, though his blood was boiling.  He turned to one of his young priests.  The man had been a boy when Patrick baptized him.  He was now in his early 20s, having spent his whole life hearing Patrick's teaching.  He was the man who was dispatched back to the settlement to deal with Coroticus. 

"Just tell him that they're Christians."  Patrick advised.  "He probably doesn't know that I baptized them.  it was only yesterday."

The young man left, taking a handful of fellow priests with him.  They witnessed first-hand the carnage and corpses; and they caught up with the raiders at the shoreline. The Irish captives were there, some sobbing, some furious, some numb with shock, all terrified and in chains. 

Patrick's priests sought out Coroticus himself and explained the situation.  He laughed in their faces.  Patrick's mission was a joke!  The Irish were scum, subhuman, without souls.  Converting them to Christianity made a mockery of Christ Himself!  Plus they'd fetch a good price amongst the Pagan Scotti and Picti tribes.

There was little that the priests could do.  They watched the slaves leaving with a sense of utter futility.  Then they reported back to Patrick; and he raised Holy Hell.

Who was Coroticus?

In truth, nobody knows for sure.  The Romans began retreating from Britain in around 410, though their influence extended for several decades on. 

The Germanic tribes were raiding or invading throughout the 5th century.  The British administration was in chaos.

Coroticus is usually named as a Romano-British king from the Strathclyde region, possibly around Dumbarton now. But the source is 8th century damage limitation, because history would not look kindly upon him.

More probably he was the British leader of a military unit, trained by Rome, but not called overseas.  He was little more than a mercenary now, covered in fading Roman prestige.

St Patrick's Letter to the Soldiers of Coroticus

Today it would be blazed across the internet and in newspaper headlines. Circa 450, it was a public shaming by open letter.

It's said that the pen is mightier than the sword.  Steeped in the Irish culture and traditions now, St Patrick had certainly seen the bards at work.  He knew the importance of words. 

He also had the precedent of St Paul, who'd railed angrily against the Corinthians and Romans alike.

St Patrick started writing. 

It wasn't just one letter.  One letter could get lost or otherwise destroyed.  It was several.  Every one of them was written in Patrick's own hand.  Scribes for the written word were few and far between, in a nation of people wedded to an oral tradition.

Patrick wrote it down so that it could be read and re-read, and read aloud to crowds, throughout Christian Europe. And he raged.

He introduced himself in all the humble tones of a Christian missionary; and he told the story of the enslavement of newly converted Christian men, women and children.  He made it all sound very real, tugging at heart-strings and immediate. 

'The very next day after my new converts, dressed all in white, were anointed with chrism, even as it was still gleaming upon their foreheads, they were cruelly cut down and killed by the swords of these same devilish men.'

Patrick's passion showed through time and time again, as he condemned the actions of his fellow Romano-British.

'Patricides, they are, yes and fratricides, no better than ravening wolves devouring God's own people like a loaf of bread.'

As often as he could, Patrick reminded his readers that the raiders were Roman; and that they had disgraced Rome with their barbaric behavior.  Just as often, he told them that the victims were Christian; and that they had only just put their trust in God.

'For myself, I do not know "what I shall say," or how "I may speak anymore" of those who are dead of these children of God-whom the sword has struck down so harshly, beyond all belief. For it is written, "Weep with those that weep", and again, "If one member grieves, then all members should grieve together."'

He called upon all Christians to defend their faith. He told them categorically that if they did not side with the enslaved Christian Irish here, then they sided with the Devil. He called upon all Christian swords to do something about it. Then he excommunicated Coroticus and his soldiers. 

'My chief request is that anyone who is a servant of God be ready and willing, to carry this letter forward; may it never be hidden or stolen by anyone, but rather, may it be read aloud before the whole people - Yes, even when Coroticus himself is present.'

Then he stated that all bets were off, if Coroticus repented and returned those he had enslaved.  He hoped dearly that these Roman men would return to God, and stop rebelling against Christ to do Satan's work.

Figurines of St Patrick

How St Patrick Added to the Groans of the British

The Romans wouldn't have come back anyway, but many Romano-British couldn't face facts. They were desperate and needed someone to blame.

The letter was carried and read across the entire Roman Empire. It couldn't have come at a worse time for Britain, nor its embarrassed Romano-British nobility.

Britain was still nominally part of the Roman Empire, under the protection of its emperor.  The legions had begun withdrawing thirty years before, but there were still plenty of Romano-Britons who believed Rome still cared what happened to them.

The power vacuum had led to lawlessness within vulnerable areas, where the Romans had once been strong.  It had also attracted the attention of invaders from Northern Europe.

Rome had effectively neutered the administrative and military capabilities of the Celts, then abandoned them as sitting ducks to Germanic and Norse raiders.

St Patrick's open letter came just four years after another heart-felt appeal.  The Groans of the British had been a plea from its nobility to the Roman senate to send help. It hadn't come.  Now St Patrick's letter painted the Romano-British in such a bad light, that it appeared to justify that controversial decision.

From the point of view of the British, it was a public relations disaster. It gave Rome an excuse to never come back, in a way which also received approval from the ordinary Roman citizens. Such a situation could, and would, prove deadly for the British. 

Moreover, it set the stage for a cultural genocide of the Celts in modern-day England, from which it has never recovered. 

Needless to say, this did not make St Patrick popular in mainland Britain. History does not record what happened to Coroticus and his men, nor the Irish slaves that had been sold to the Scotti and Pictish tribes. 

History Books about Post-Romano Britain

Discover more about the historical context in which St Patrick lived - Britain during the fall of the Roman Empire.
The Decline & Fall of Roman Britain

Why did Rome abandon Britain in the early 5th century? According to Neil Faulkner, the centralized, military-bureaucratic state, governed by a class of super-rich landlords and ...

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An Imperial Possession: Britain in the Roman Empire

The definitive history of Roman Britain In the first major narrative history of the subject in more than a generation, David Mattingly brings life in Britain during four hundred ...

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The Fall of Rome: And the End of Civilization

Was the fall of Rome a great catastrophe that cast the West into darkness for centuries to come? Or, as scholars argue today, was there no crisis at all, but simply a peaceful b...

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Empires and Barbarians: The Fall of Rome and the Birth of Europe

Empires and Barbarians presents a fresh, provocative look at how a recognizable Europe came into being in the first millennium AD. With sharp analytic insight, Peter Heather exp...

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Slandering the Saint: The War of Words Begins

The backlash against St Patrick came from the Romano-British, but it was soon taken up by the Irish Druids.

Image: Luck of the IrishAre we sure that we can trust the word of Bishop Padraig on the subject of Coroticus?  The conduct of a good Roman man and a Christian soldier, as told by someone trying to covert the barbarian Irish?

Did you know that Patrick accepted gifts from wherever he went?  Gold, silver, jewelry, all kinds of precious commodities to keep a man warm in his old age.

Moreover, did you know that Patrick only gave out bishoprics and baptisms if he was PAID to do so?  What kind of lamb of God was that?!  He didn't learn that sort of anti-Christian treachery in a French monastery, oh no.

How about the women?  He only wets the pretty ladies, you know.  Into the river, naked or with thin clothing clinging to their bodies. Patrick was leching even as he spoke the holy words!  And what about that 'sin' that he went on about.  Oh!  The sin!

Back on the eve of his ordination, he opted for a private confession. Not a public one, in front of all the Christian council, but private.  Just him whispering his guilt, in a darkened room, to a monk.  Of course, the monk can't tell us what it was.  It was a Confession.  But what sin is so bad that it had to be private.  What sin could possibly be that bad that even now he won't mention it.

Let us speculate...

Thus ran the rumor mill, starting in Britain, passed on throughout the whole Roman Empire, but finding its most fertile ground amongst the as yet unconverted southern Irish.  It should all have been easy to dismiss, but it was also spreading doubt amongst recent converts in the north of the country.

After all, the Christian God hadn't saved those poor people from murder, looting, rape and enslavement, had He?  And everyone knew about that now.  Patrick's own letters had ensured that.

And did you hear about that Druidic prophet?  What he'd said?  Before Patrick even stepped foot in Ireland, that had been foretold:

'Across the sea will come Adze-head, crazed in the head,
his cloak with hole for the head, his stick bent in the head.
He will chant impieties from a table in the front of his house;
all his people will answer: "so be it, so be it."'

Novels Dramatizing the Story of St Patrick

'Ireland' by Frank Delaney inspired how I told Patrick's story for Wizzley. A nod towards a true bard there.

The Christian Trial of St Patrick

We'll never know if it was an actual trial, or merely a war of reputation conducted through letters and gossip. But it happened.

Image: St PatrickPatrick could sense all of his hard work being eroded away. 

He'd defied the conventions of his own people to evangelize outside the Roman Empire.  He'd made life harder for himself by linking Christianity with the abolition of slavery.  He would have made converts much faster amongst the Gaelic monarchs without that. 

Now doubt had set in amongst the Irish themselves and that threatened to undermine all that Patrick had achieved.  So he took to his pen again.

St Patrick's Confession included biographical notes, which remains the primary source for much of the information that we know about him.  He didn't deny receiving gifts from wealthy patrons, but he explained that those were all returned.  Nor did he deny that he had confessed a sin in private.  But he didn't state what it was.

That was between him, his confessor and God.

He also categorically denied that he had ever been offered, nor accepted, any material gain for baptizing people, ordaining priests nor awarding bishoprics.  He was appalled by that very idea!  He added that, during his mission, he had baptized 'thousands' of Irish people.

Still on the subject of money, Patrick did state that he'd paid some out of his own pocket.  He paid for princes to join him, knowing well how useful their conversion would be.

It was all written in the same humble, but fiery tone which had so marked his earlier Letter. The pious amongst the Roman Empire appeared to lap it up, but then they would.  It was in the political interests of Rome to do so.  Which shouldn't take away from the apparent sincerity of Patrick's Confession.  It was his testimony from the heart.

The Confession of Saint Patrick and Letter to Coroticus

Buy this book to read the full tirade against Coroticus and his soldiers and the Confession, translated from Latin, but otherwise in St Patrick's own words.
The Confession of Saint Patrick and Letter to Coroticus

The autobiography of one of the most popular saints in history, now available in a new translation.Beyond being recognized as the patron saint of Ireland (perhaps for having cha...

View on Amazon

The Confession of St. Patrick

Saint Patrick (Latin: Sanctus Patricius, Irish: Naomh Pádraig) (possibly c. 387 – 17 March, 493;[3][dubious – discuss] ) was a Romano-Briton and Christian missionary, who is the...

View on Amazon

The Death of St Patrick, Apostle of Ireland

But can you really call someone dead, when their legacy continues so loudly?

St Patrick's Day is celebrated each year on March 17th.  This is generally supposed to be the date upon which he died in Ireland.

The year causes some difficulties though.  The Annals of Ulster, from 493, recorded the event:

'Patrick, arch-apostle, or archbishop and apostle of the Irish, rested on the 16th of the Kalends of April in the 120th year of his age, in the 60th year after he had come to Ireland to baptize the Irish.'

The 16th day of the Kalends of April is indeed March 17th, as reckoned by today's calendar.  But 493?!  120 years old?  Are they sure about that bit?

For many years, people telling this story just blithely repeated the date without questioning it too much.  After all, St Patrick was a saint.  Holy men tend to do miraculous things, like live until they're 120.  There are individuals in the Bible who counted their age in many more centuries than that.

However, modern historians have found priests taking his name, and a later missionary named Palladius, who continued the evangelizing of the Irish in the latter part of the 5th century. 

It's now firmly believed that the original St Patrick died on March 17th 460, or thereabouts, aged 68 years old.  But his words and mission went on.  Parades and parties are held in his honor.  He's probably the most famous patron saint in the world, if such celebrations are any indication. 

From that point of view, he's not dead yet.

Scenes from St Patrick's Life

Read the Earlier Installments of St Patrick's Story

Who was St Patrick? Pampered Roman child; shivering, starving slave; learned priest; precociously young bishop; missionary; all of the above.
St Patrick is possibly the world's most famous patron saint. On March 17th, people all over the world will celebrate St Patrick's Day. But do you know his story?
The third part of the story brings us back to Ireland again. This time Patricius came, not in chains, but of his own free will and volition. He was on a mission from God.
Updated: 03/10/2014, JoHarrington
Thank you! Would you like to post a comment now?


JoHarrington on 04/19/2013

I'm glad that I was able to inform you. I found it an interesting story as I was researching it too. So much that we don't know, when we're drinking our way through March 17th.

Thank you for reading my other articles too.

Scatty D on 04/19/2013

Thank you for this series. As a British born child of Irish parents we always celebrated St Patrick's Day at our school, but I never really learned much detail about his life.

I do enjoy reading your articles, particularly the Runescape and Pagan topic ones.

JoHarrington on 03/16/2013

Thank you for reading them, and I'm pleased that you found them interesting. :)

Jeremy on 03/15/2013

These were very interesting. Now I know a lot more about st. Patrick.:)

JoHarrington on 02/24/2013

Glad to hear it. :) Thank you for reading.

kate on 02/23/2013

thank you, iv'ed enjoyed reading these.

JoHarrington on 02/18/2013

You get the contract and I'll sign on the dotted line. :D

I'm glad that you liked it. Thanks for reading.

HollieT on 02/18/2013

This is a lovely series, Jo! It should be adapted for TV. :)

JoHarrington on 02/17/2013

You're very welcome. Thanks for reading it!

Mira on 02/17/2013

Great story, Jo! Thank you so much for sharing it!

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