British History, 407-597, by Fabio P. Barbieri

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Chapter 4.1: Patrick's writings and his claim

Fabio P. Barbieri

At some point in the fifth century, a man of British birth, one of whose names was Patricius or Patrick, found himself at daggers drawn with the Church of Britain. It is surprising how little we know about him, far all that, by being the effective founder of the Irish Catholic Church, he has made a huge difference to European history. Furious[1] scholarly debate has established no common ground, and in so far as a common ground exists among a majority of academics, that common ground, I believe and hope to show, is mistaken, based on evidence that is no evidence at all. The only thing everyone accepts is Patrick's authorship of two shortish texts, the Confession and the Letter to Coroticus; we will start from these.

In the Letter to Coroticus, an angry account of the crimes committed against his Irish converts by a pirate leader with the British name Coroticus (who is a nominal Christian and a Roman citizen), Patrick claimed to be Bishop "in Ireland"; but nothing is more clear, from every surviving word of his, than that his claim to the title was at best doubtful. He rubs at the question of his legitimacy like a sore spot: I hold myself to be a Bishop; I am most certain that what I have, I have from God...I am not usurping; I have a share with those whom He called and predestined to preach the Gospel to the ends of the earth... my own people do not recognize me; well, a prophet is not without honour except in his own country [that is to say, he was recognized as Bishop in Ireland, but not in Britain]...Not by my own gift; but it was God who gave this urge in my heart, that I should be one of the hunters and fishers whom God once foretold for the last days...  It is perhaps not even the case that he consistently claimed episcopal rank.  In his other surviving item, the Confession - a spiritual self-defence, largely for the use of his Irish flock - he does not use the word "bishop" about himself once.  (This assertion may surprise those familiar with the text, but I intend to justify it in the next few pages.)

Indeed, he is not the kind of man we expect to find at the head of a diocese in the fifth century.  Bishops were as a rule educated members of the highest classes; on more than one occasion (the cases of Ambrosius of Milan, Sidonius Apollinaris of Clermont-Ferrand, Synesius of Cyrene, for instance) the populace simply demanded that the leading landowner or government officer in the district be made Bishop, though he was not ordained or even baptized.  Ambrosius was not yet baptized when he was acclaimed by the Milanese crowd; Synesius had actually had a notable career as a pagan philosopher when the people of Cyrene levered him into the episcopal chair.

Now Patrick shows every sign of not belonging to this class of men.  He is aware that his Latin grammar and usage are not impressive, and that a lot of people look down on him.  In classical and late-classical civilization, the purity and elaboracy of Latin (or Greek) prose was a token of authority, both intellectual and political, and it is not surprising to find that the most pugnacious of the great Fathers, Jerome, is also the one who writes the most elaborate and artistic Latin.  He is throwing his learning in his opponents' faces, and he knows it: in one of his polemical letters - to a friend - he makes the point quite specifically, that being loquax, able to speak at length and with clarity and precision, entitles him to silence and crush a heretic who is infantissimus, most inarticulate[2].  It is for that reason, exactly, that Patrick insists on his supposed episcopal rank - whatever you may think of me, you must respect the staff I carry.

Self-education is hardly the worst kind.  Patrick never completed a proper course of studies, since Irish pirates carried him off at sixteen as a slave (Confession 1); but he did not turn out too badly.  He was a bad writer of Latin, but a great Latin writer; or, rather a great self-taught orator.

His individual approach to public speaking can be experienced and examined in the Letter.  He has a few basic lines of argument in mind: a) his own legitimacy as a Church leader, b) the fate of his converts, and c) the wretched spiritual state of Coroticus and his gang of murderers.  He develops them one at a time, brusquely dropping one point to pull another, so to speak, in by the hair; but as the argument proceeds, it becomes clear that they are all closely connected - it is because, a), his episcopal rank is challenged, that, b), his converts are open to abuse; and that abuse shows, to his genuine distress, that, c), Coroticus and his raiders are bound for Hell.  In other words, Patrick has the one gift without which nobody can become a good writer - the gift of seeing the point, and sticking to it.  In this, though poles apart in temperament, attitude and culture, he is exactly like Gildas.

He starts with his ringing claim of being a Bishop, with a commission received "from God".  This is to get people's attention, since the letter is not sent for his pleasure, but to achieve a result - namely, the excommunication of Coroticus and his gang of pseudo-Christian pirates.  In chapter 3, he moves to a description of their crime: they actually raided a meeting of his own freshly-baptized faithful, butchered them while still in their white baptismal robes, and carried the women away to be sold as slaves, or worse, to the distant and pagan Picts.  When Patrick sent a consecrated priest to ask for the release of the women and of part (only part) of their booty, these supposed Christian raiders laughed in his face.  It is truly an outrageous story, which will shock any Christian to this day (though - given what we have witnessed in such places as Ruanda or Sierra Leone - hardly an incredible one).

What makes Patrick's apparently rough-and-ready constructive principles work is that, to put it at the lowest possible level, he does not repeat himself.  Though his subject is the ghastly slaughter inflicted on his converts, he does not linger on it.  What Classically trained orator could have resisted the temptation to embroider? - think of what Jerome, or even Augustine, or indeed Gildas, would have done.  But Patrick doesn't; he rightly expects that simply to say that such a monstrous action has taken place will be enough.  He describes it once, in the opening passage; he then develops his simple but powerful argument - you cannot be a Christian and a murderer, let alone a murderer of brother Christians; therefore Cap'n Coroticus and his band must be excluded from the Christian Church unless and until they repent and make restitution for their crimes.  He never returns to this particular line of argument once without adding something to it.  Authority from the Bible is given at some length for the excommunication of Coroticus (7-9), beginning with the death and crucifixion of Christ "for the sake of" Irish converts (a proposition that must have seemed almost outrageous to some of his British opponents, with their inbred contempt and hatred for the barbarians across the sea); then Patrick brings out with vigorous brevity the cannibalistic horror of feasting on the spoils of fellow-Christians, including a brief, marvellous burst of indignation, one of the most successful in all literature: "therefore do not be pleased with this injustice against the just: even[3] to Hell, it will not please!" - and culminating in a devastating analogy: such feasts are like the food of death that Eve ignorantly offered her husband (12-13).  Then the example of the Christians of Gaul, treated as a paragon, is shamingly exhibited to their British fellow-Christians and fellow-Romans: they ransom baptized prisoners from the Pagans at enormous cost - tot milia solidi, so many thousands of gold coins - while Coroticus sells baptized prisoners[4] as slaves or worse, and grows fat upon the proceedings (14).  Finally, whatever the justice of this world may do to this unrepentant slaver and pirate, there is another justice prepared, in which the Just Judge will gather His own to Himself and place their enemies under their feet.  In a majestic, visionary climax, Patrick describes their triumphant progress to Paradise as if he saw it (17-20), involving Coroticus' ultimate fate like a passing downwards glance on the road to immortality.  Coroticus may be a master, a victorious lord, a powerful man with plenty of influential friends, in this world: in the next, he is less than nothing, ashes, smoke in the wind, a footnote to the eternal triumph of Patrick's beloved converts and friends.

You can see that not a word is wasted; Patrick is always moving on to the next point, and only stops when he can linger, in his climactic final chapters, on the blazing vision of his friends moving, "leaping for joy like calves freed from the bonds" of sin and mortality, to the ultimate goal of every man.  It is not a perfect construction: more careful writing might have placed the comparison of the Gallic Christians ransoming captives and Coroticus capturing them before his description of the cannibalistic feasting in Coroticus' hall, so that the origin of Coroticus' wealth might come before his enjoyment of it and make it the more horrible; it is the case, I think, that Chapter 14 represents a certain lessening of Patrick's forwards motion, and therefore of the power of his polemic.  But on the whole, Patrick is able to string together in a single speech all the points that occur to him and to lead up to a climax; his climaxes, both minor and major, are always superb, sometimes unexpected - like the comparison of Coroticus' feasts to Eve's apple, both of them being "food of death" - but always well designed and highly pertinent. He started with the massacre of the white-clad neophytes, washed of sin and innocent, new-born children of God; he ends with an unwontedly long, ecstatically repetitive account of their progress beyond death and to God, in which his vehement forward progress halts, adding variation after variation on joy, liberation, triumph, reigning with the Saints: "...baptized as believers, you have abandoned the world for Paradise.  I see you: you have begun the journey to where there will be no night nor grieving nor further death, but you shall exult like calves loosed from the stocks, and you shall tread over evil men, and they shall be like ashes under your feet; so[5]you shall reign with the apostles, and the prophets, and the martyrs.  You [i.e.: not Coroticus, who brags of his temporal kingdom] will achieve everlasting kingdoms, as He Himself bears witness: 'They shall come from the East and from the West, and lie down with Abraham and Isaac and Jacob in the kingdoms of Heaven'; 'Outside are dogs and poisoners and murderers'; 'To perjured liars, their share is in the lake of everlasting fire'.  Not unworthily says the Apostle: 'Where the righteous shall hardly be saved, where shall the sinner and the blasphemous transgressor of the law be recognized?'  For this reason[6], indeed, Coroticus with his most villainous rebels against Christ: where shall they see themselves, who distribute poor little baptized women for a prize, for a wretched kingdom in this world of time, that time will blow away in a moment?  Like clouds or smoke scattered by the wind, so the sinners and deceivers shall perish from the face of God: but the just shall feast for ever and ever with Christ, shall judge nations and rule over unjust kings for all the world to come.  Amen!"

Never mind how little he knew of post-Ciceronian rhetorical principles: this is great oratory.  Despite the prevailing Biblical tone, Patrick uses imagery with great freedom, altering it to make it say even more than the original does.  In "you shall tread over evil men, and they shall be like ashes under your feet", Patrick clearly has in mind Psalm 110: "The Lord said to my Lord: sit by My side, till I have made your foes the footstool under your feet", a strong and sufficiently suggestive image whether you are speaking of an earthly King of Jerusalem threatened by his neighbours, or of one of the blessed dead triumphing over spiritual evil.  But Patrick turns the "footstool" into "ashes", introducing into this scene of triumph, centred entirely on the victory of the righteous, an objective view of the final state of rebellious and unrepentant villainy.  Sub specie aeternitatis, Coroticus is not only defeated, he is ashes.  The image of defeated evil under the feet of triumphant good is relevant only to the triumph of good; on the other hand, the image of Coroticus' soul[7] as ashes takes an interest in his own spiritual state, not only in who triumphs over him.  To the Psalmist, all that matters is that his King and his God should both triumph; once their enemies have submitted, he is not interested in them except than as the "footstool" of the King.  But Patrick has a vivid vision of the reality of Coroticus' soul, not only as it relates to his triumphant converts, but as itself, doubling and redoubling the sense of total spiritual ruin that goes with his revolt against God; and the Letter rings with lamentations about his and his followers' moral catastrophe.  Patrick does not know whether to weep for their sorry bondage to sin less than for the death they inflicted (4), quotes the Gospel to ask what good it is to him to gain the world and lose his soul (8), calls his people "miserable" in their ignorance of the poisonous nature of what they do (13), and cannot close this most vehement of denunciations without a hope, however dim and dismal, that Coroticus should repent, however late (21).  His concern for his enemy's soul is not an affectation, but a strong current of his whole work, genuine and moving; and, as with the fate of his converts, Patrick does not touch the subject once without developing it.

This approach to construction is an individual achievement, the result of a distinctive personality, with a gift for communication and a very firm grasp of essentials.  Patrick never meanders off; however jerky his motion from point to point, he sticks to them, and even the jerkiness is dictated by a constant awareness of the important points to cover, so that, even while he is dealing with one idea, he has another in mind, not repeating, but growing out of, something he has previously said.  I doubt that Patrick's ars oratoria could be taught - at least not so as to allow the next generation to produce equally valuable pieces of writing - since it includes some very considerable formal flaws; but it makes for a very effective approach to oratory, and shows all the signs of having been built on an experience of public and extemporaneous speaking.  It was in having to stand up and speak, to indifferent or hostile audiences, or to inspire fearful or hopeless believers, that Patrick learned to stick to the point and not to repeat himself; which does a lot to explain his success as a missionary.

In the Letter, this approach is particularly bald and unadulterated, each line of argument being brought to a screeching halt when Patrick wants to say something about a different point; in other words, the way the Letter is written confirms that it was, as it claimed to be, an extemporaneous performance, written when the massacre was still recent.  Its tone is telling: it is that of a man forced into speech and anger by intolerable wrong - someone who had ducked confrontation, though provoked, until this last enormity.  He sounds as if he had ignored a great deal of provocation, in the hope that he might finally be left alone to do his work, only to find that meek acquiescence only brought on more and more outrages; "I am hated", breaks the typically direct cry from his heart; "what shall I do, Lord?  I am greatly despised".

But there is a wider political context to this, which is very clear in Patrick's mind.  It is the widespread contempt for himself as a person that has caused this outrage: Coroticus' raid follows from the fact that "his own people" do not recognize him (11-12), and is part of a pattern of destructive interference on the part of unnamed enemies of whom Coroticus is only the last and worst.  "It does not come together: one destroys, another builds."  And yet, he says, he asks for no more than what is his by right - what the Lord Himself has placed in his heart: missionary work among the still pagan Irish, the building of a Church of God among this new people.  He is not, he means, interfering with anyone else's work: why is his own being interfered with?  Patrick (for once) makes good use of Latin grammar, using the imperfect to say that things had been so fine in spite of everything - gregem Domini, quem utique in Hiberione cum summa diligentia optime crescebat - the Lord's flock, that, with [so much] hard work, had been growing so well everywhere in Ireland[8]; and what the imperfect implies is that that growth may now have ceased, that Coroticus' bright little venture has put everything at risk.

We have a right to wonder whether this was only the unpremeditated action of a raider.  Patrick says clearly that Coroticus has friends in the Church, and he dreads his letter being hidden or altered - by churchmen!  And, given that the destructive interference he suffered seems to have come from Britain (he says, being British himself, that "his own people do not recognize him" and all but charges them with wanting to "destroy" what he has worked so hard to "build"), I think that the fact that Coroticus should just have happened to raid a gathering of Patrick's converts, enslaving the women and butchering the men, on the day after their baptism - that is, at the moment where he could not only take a bit of plunder, but also devastate Patrick's image among his followers - is one of those coincidences that just don't happen.  Patrick certainly regards it, if not as part of the generalized campaign against him, at least as a by-product of that campaign: "my own people do not know me... I am hated; what shall I do, Lord?  I am greatly despised: behold, Your sheep are butchered and rustled around me, and by those mean robbers I mentioned..."  It is hard not to feel a continuity between "I am greatly despised" and "Your sheep are butchered around me", especially if you speak it, as Patrick meant it, aloud, with the rushing vehemence it so obviously demands.  Patrick (in whom the thought of Christians raped and driven like sheep to serve as slaves in heathen lands must have raised dreadful memories) is saying that it is because he, Patrick, was regarded as contemptible, that Coroticus took it upon himself to raid and butcher his converts.  And as Dumville observed[9], "[Patrick's tone] leads one to believe that the very fact of the converts' baptism made them targets.  The Devil showed his resentment through the unjust rule, per tyrannidem, of Coroticus, who does not fear God or his priests."

On the other hand, I doubt that he regarded Coroticus as being in the mainstream of the opposition to him.  The Letter seems to me to carry a sub-text saying "do you see the kind of attitudes you foster when you try to tear down my missionary activities?  This rogue took seriously your personal attacks on me, learned that I was a contemptible person and no Christian leader, and promptly decided that the thing to do was to butcher my flock, baptized though it was - which also led to the small matter of large profits for him".  There is a visible distinction between the people in Britain who oppose him and try to tear down his mission - whose activities Patrick deplores, but does not attack - and Coroticus, who is regarded as totally in thrall to the Devil.  Patrick stresses that, while claiming to be a fellow-citizen of "the holy Romans", Coroticus makes his money by dealing with apostate Picts and still-pagan Irish ("Scots"[10]): he may claim to be a citizen of an empire consecrated to the One God[11], but his citizenship is in fact with the pagan gods ("demons") worshipped by these barbarian peoples.  All the time, Patrick is trying to draw a distinction between proper Romans and/or Christians, and Coroticus; Coroticus becomes the focus of all the negativity that Patrick has encountered in his enormous task, and surely part of his purpose is to make the less barbarous among his opponents recoil from the consequences of their actions.

Probably later in date, the Confession is a much more calculated and meditated piece of work, though it does not escape the limits of St.Patrick's Latin learning.  I accept Howlett's finding that it is built on a continuous formal imitation of the first chapters of the Gospel according to Matthew; I just don't accept that this represents any great demonstration of literary skill on the Saint's part.  Quite to the contrary, it is a device any schoolchild could master in a couple of lessons; take one well-known piece of writing and use it as a template to build another.  Having experienced the fantastic formal elaboracy, polished grammar and gem-like vocabulary of St.Gildas, I do not understand how anyone could speak of the Latin of St.Patrick in the same terms.  Patrick's sentences are simple - or else very confused; his use of standard rhetorical devices such as alliteration is obvious; his connectives are even feebler and more confused than those of Gregory of Tours - he uses ergo, "therefore", when there is nothing to be proven and no premise to prove it from - and he frequently makes a most odd use of cases.  When he claims to be indoctus and rusticissimus, we need not doubt that he is saying what he knows to be true.

However, the structure of the Confession, in spite of its Matthew framework, is quite as original as that of the Letter.  It can roughly be divided into nine or ten large sections, each several chapters long, and each ending with an outburst of praise to God.  In chapters 1-3, Patrick introduces himself and gives a brief and elliptical account of his irreligious childhood and youth, his enslavement, and the awakening of his Christian faith; this gives rise to his first burst of praise.  Chapter 4 is his confession of faith, copied from an ancient credal statement by Victorinus of Pettau, and rather isolated in the flow of successive sections - in the sense that it does not, like the rest of the work, lead up to anything, or end in a burst of praise (it has no need).  5-8 are a very serious and rather naive assertion of Patrick's duty to tell the absolute truth, as he will answer for it before God; here, too, there is no final burst of praise.

But this is introductory material.  With 9-15, we get into the meat of the argument.  This is Patrick's apologia for his poor Latin and comparative ignorance: he asserts that, in spite of them, he still has a duty to make known God's gifts according to his faith in the Trinity (14) and praises God for having given him this quite undeserved opportunity (15).  This is not only a manifestation of Patrick's well-known sense of educational inferiority: the statement that he has a duty, ignorant or not, to preach the Gospel he knows, sounds like an answer to a statement - unheard by us, but ringing painfully in his ears - that such an illiterate fellow should not presume to even get close to a pulpit.  The tone of answer in ch.14 is, to me, obvious.

The fact that he makes his poor Latinity and general ignorance part of his argument means that those recent scholarly views which try to maintain that he was a great and learned Latin stylist stand upon a most boggy foundation.  The Saint's admission of ignorance is not a graceful convention, but a matter of serious business, one of the headings of his opponents' attack on him; and he admits it - yes, I am ignorant, but even the ignorant have a duty to proclaim the Gospel according to their faith in the Trinity.  Compare this to St.Jerome's aggressive (and justified) claims for his own learning: no graceful convention is going to stand in his way of asserting Catholic dogma, for which his education definitely is an argument - as I know more than the heretics, so my arguments are better founded.  Patrick is at exactly the opposite position - yes, I am less educated than my enemies; but I preach good Trinitarian Catholic orthodoxy, and the Lord has called me to do so.  The potentially ruinous nature of this admission, which conceded an important part of his enemies' claims, shows that it was spoken, not as a polite demurral, but in deadly earnest, under that duty of speaking the absolute truth asserted with such naive fervour in the early chapters of the Confession. Patrick also associates his defence of his rustic ways with his faith in the Trinity, which, in his day, meant an assertion of orthodoxy, since most heresies had been anti-Trinitarian in some fashion.  I think that Patrick's enemies may have suggested that, as he was uneducated, so his theology was bound to be flawed: in replying to them, he excuses his ignorance and defends his orthodoxy at the same time.  He admits the charge of ignorance, but utterly rejects that of bad theology.

The next section (16-25) deals with Patrick's vocation and his direct experience of God, at a length that is startlingly at odds with the brevity of his section on his childhood.  Part of it is a strong denial of having had anything to do with Pagan practices: in Ireland, he took the opportunity of his solitary time as a shepherd boy to pray as often as a hundred times a day; on his way back to Britain, he put his very escape into danger by refusing to participate in the pagan practices of the sailors who ferried him over.  This section is dominated by his direct experience of the reality of God and Satan, and ends, not with his joyful reunion with his parents, who beg him never to leave again (23), but with his dream of Victoricus bearing him letters from other faithful in Ireland, begging him to return to them (24), and with his tremendous sense of the Spirit Himself praying for him (25).  It is not clear that this is answering any accusation, as all other sections are, but it ties up to the previous section in that it gives a startlingly mystical account of that "rustic" vocation which 9-15 defended against the oh-so-well-educated clergy, the dominicati rhetores, the ultra-learned beneficed ecclesiastics: how can they deny the validity of such a direct experience of God?

But with 26-33, we have reached the heart of the matter.  Patrick's seniores charge him with a grievous sin as he is performing a "laborious episcopate", and, to make the matter even more galling, it is Patrick's amicissimus, his dearest friend, who informed them!  These seniores must be ecclesiastical superiors, since they have jurisdiction to charge and condemn him for his sins; the effect of their condemnation, it seems, would be that he would be removed from Ireland, since part of his response is that he did not go to Ireland of his own accord (28).  On the night when he receives news of his condemnation, he has another vision, this time "a writing against my face without honour", scriptum contra faciem meam sine honore - that is, his written condemnation and degradation.  But he hears a voice saying male uidimus faciem designati nudato honore, "ill have We seen the face of the designatus with [its] honour stripped off"(29).  This gives him courage, and he carries on the fight - he does not tell us how - to a brilliant victory: fides mea probata est coram Deo et hominibus, my faith was proved in the presence of God and men (30).  He cannot leave the subject without a mournful and puzzled reference to his friend's betrayal (32); but neither does he leave it without renewed praise to God for "seeking him out in his land of exile and protecting him from all evils" (33).

This leads to a section, 34-36, that is all praise, describing in terms both exultant and elliptical his ministry in Ireland.  Patrick still cannot imagine unde mihi haec sapientia, quae non erat in me, qui neque numerum dierum noueram neque Deum sapiebam, "whence to me this learning? - which was not within me, I who neither could reckon the number of days[12], nor knew God".  It is sapientiam, knowledge, knowledge of something real, not a feeling but a fact; and it is a knowledge that he can, as a missionary, communicate to his hearers; but it was nothing that he made for himself.  He had it, he is sure, from an outside Source.  This echoes and extends his previous rebuke to the wise, confiscating the very notion of sapientia for the use of the indoctus peccator rusticissimus et contemptibilissimus apud plurimos, and giving thanks for it to God.

The brusque jump to the next section (37-46), with absolutely no connecting idea, reminds us of the jerkiest moments of the Letter: Patrick is still Patrick.  This section accounts for his refusal to come to Britain to defend himself, and that is why he jumps back in time, from his condemnation in Britain (when already a missionary leader in Ireland) to the last days before the start of his mission.  When he first decided to go back to Ireland to preach God, he says, his family even offered him large gifts, weeping, to convince him to stay, and a number of his elders - probably not the same seniores who condemned and traduced him - grumbled at his resolution; but, he says, he was inflexible, or rather God was inflexible in him (37).  Now he wants to stay in Ireland, because here God has worked through him to bring so many nations to Himself (38-39), and therefore it is his duty to "fish diligently".  For this he brings up the largest number of proof-texts anywhere in his writings, in the longest of all his chapters (40): whatever happens, he simply will not stop his apostolate in Ireland, and that is that.  Above all, women who have taken monastic vows need his protection from their very disapproving parents (42), and to go to Britain to his family, or to Gaul to his fratres and the "Saints of God", would mean to leave his work in Ireland without protection (43).  Patrick is torn, because, being all too aware of his own tendencies to sin, he does not trust his own judgement (44); but he intends to follow the will of God as it becomes clear to him.  Being rather slow and stupid, it has taken him a long time to see it, even when it was as plain as the nose on his face, and he is grateful to God, among other things, for His patience with his, Patrick's, stupidity (45-46).

Patrick then addresses his own converts, dealing with the practical aspects of running a mission (47-58).  Some elements lead us to believe that he had led his organization, financially speaking, on the rocks, through a combination of unwillingness to accept large gifts from converts, especially women (49) and the inescapable need to pay large sums to kings and brehons (Irish justiciars; 51-53).  The reason for this is not clear, but it must have something to do with his assertion that he has always been honest to the heathen and never cheated them in anything (48); so he says that he is more suited to poverty after all, and that, though exalted far beyond what he expected, poverty he has to the full (55).  All this strongly suggests that, as he was writing, his diocese was very low on funds.  He is imperitus in omnibus, inexperienced in all sorts of things, which harks back to his address to the wise, who are legis periti et potentes... in omni re, expert in law and powerful in all sorts of things (13).  Patrick, I think, meant that he had never been trained in administration, like the higher ranks of the Roman nobility, and therefore was not really qualified to run the organizational side of a diocese; this, coupled with his refusal on principle to be paid for baptizing or teaching the Gospel or ordaining priests (50) - matters in which his scrupulosity went far beyond ordinary Church rules ("for the labourer is worthy of his hire"), but which he justifies by the urgent need that the pagans should not consider him and his Church money-grubbers or swindlers (48) - cannot be good news for the diocese's finances.  (Elsewhere, he says that he is not good at providing for the future, nescio in posterum prouidere - 12).  The defensive tone especially in 50-51 strongly suggests that questions had been asked about his financial probity: forte autem quando baptizaui tot milia hominum sperauerim ab aliquo illorum uel dimidio scriptulae?  Dicite mihi, et reddam uobis...  "But perhaps, when I was baptizing so many thousand people, I should have hoped for something from them, or for half a scriptula?  Tell me, and I'll give it back to you..."  The tone is unmistakable: someone has been spreading stories about the Roman-age equivalent of numbered Swiss accounts.  This section, too, ends in praise; and leads to four final chapters of praise (59-62), including a prayer to be found worthy of martyrdom (59) and a haunting comparison of the sun, worshipped by pagans but created and doomed to perish, with the splendour of Christ, Who created the sun, and Who lives for ever.

Now, in the Confession, Patrick does not use the word episcopus of himself a single time.  His amicissimus, the one who was to let him down, told him that he was to be "given over to the upwards step to the episcopate" (a ridiculously intricate formulation in English, but quite natural in Latin: dandus es tu ad gradum episcopatus); but we are never told that that "upwards step" had been passed.  And yet we can see that the tract is written from the point of view of the leader of the Irish church; he has baptized thousands of people, ordained many priests, managed the mission's finances, improvidently and inexpertly perhaps, but with probity.  This is the attitude of a man in charge, accounting for the things charged to him.  But the closest he gets to calling himself a bishop is when he said that he "functions as an embassy[13] for my God", Deo meo pro quo legationem fungo, an ambiguous expression to say the least, and one which has an interesting echo of the periphrases used in the Letter when he is trying to assert his status: "I have a share with those whom He called and predestined to preach the Gospel... Not by my own gift; but it was God who gave this urge in my heart, that I should be one of the hunters and fishers whom God once foretold for the last days".

When Patrick has to speak of the consecrated authorities of the Church, he calls them sacerdotes.  It has been said that by sacerdos he always means bishop; I think, rather, that he is trying to emphasize the unity of the sacerdotal class, presbyters and bishops, in order to stress those things in which he was indubitably a sacerdos endowed with the power to bind and loose that Our Lord had given the apostles.  According to Catholic doctrine, the legitimate successors of the Apostles are the college of Bishops, rather than the order of priests.  Priests are certainly given the power to bind and loose, even to the point of excommunication; but they "exercise it to the extent that they have received their commission either from their bishop (or religious superior) or from the Pope", since their status is that of "collaborators" of the bishops[14].  As an ordained priest (which nobody doubts he was) Patrick certainly has the canonical right to bind and loose, and this is no more than he claims for sacerdotes; but he intended to claim for himself the superior, autonomous authority of a bishop.  He places the word in contexts where it is bound to refer to himself and to be associated with the episcopal dignity he claims.

In other words, while in the rushed and furious performance of the Letter Patrick is willing to claim the rank of bishop, in the Confession - his reasoned spiritual self-defence - he is reluctant to say anything that implies the claim.  Particularly significant is the heading of the two documents.  In the Letter, he introduces himself as Ego Patricius peccator indoctus scilicet Hiberione constitutus episcopum me esse fateor: I, Patrick, an unlearned sinner indeed, declare myself raised up in Ireland to be a bishop.  In the Confession, this becomes Ego Patricius peccator rusticissimus et minimus omnium fidelium et contemptibilissimus apud plurimos: I, Patrick, a most rustic sinner, the least of all the faithful, and an object of great contempt to many.  Apart from the self-abasement, which could even be seen as formulaic - the Pelagian De uita christiana, written in a very different spirit, has a rather similar opening - the most interesting point is that episcopu(s) constitutus Hiberione is replaced by minimus omnium fidelium, the least of all the faithful.  This formula is in the spirit of the Pope's servus servorum Christi.  If the Gospel orders that he who is greatest among Christians should be their servant, it is certainly legitimate to signal an effectively leading and pre-eminent position by the language of service; and the higher the rank, the lower the word of service.  That is what Patrick has done; but he will not, in a deliberately solemn opening, use the word episcopus.  Perhaps, having done it once in the Letter, he is reluctant to do it again - if, as most scholars (including myself) agree, the Confession is later than the Letter.

And it is clear enough why he should claim episcopal rank for himself in the Letter but not in the Confession.  In the Confession, Patrick states passionately his duty to say nothing idle or mendacious (6-8); it is a considered statement, written to a comparatively elaborate literary pattern; but the Letter is a sudden necessity forced on him by the villainous actions of his enemies.  Patrick had to assert his authority at all costs, to protect, if he could, his Irish converts; with Irish Christianity reeling under the blow, with many of his people murdered or enslaved - he had no choice but to go on the offensive; even to the cost of stretching a point.  Apart that the prestige of episcopal rank will give his words more weight, there is the practical point that he wants Coroticus excommunicated.  Even so, Patrick's excommunication is a pretty strange affair - not a formal sentence, but a repeated plea with "the holy and humble of heart" that Coroticus should be boycotted.  Its import is unmistakable, but in terms of form, it avoids the actual words of doom as carefully as the Confession avoids the title of Bishop; it is not a sentence of excommunication, but a plea for such a sentence.  Of course, a regularly appointed Bishop would still not want to interfere in another Bishop's diocese, and, other things being equal, he would not pronounce sentence of excommunication on a member of someone else's flock; but other things weren't equal.  The treacherous slaughter of freshly-baptized converts has to count as one of those acts for which excommunication is automatic: St.Ambrose[15] threatened to throw the Emperor Theodosius out of the Church for less.  Yet Patrick does not announce that such an event has happened - he only pleads for excommunication to be pronounced.

There is something familiar about all this.  Patrick, clearly the leader of the Church in Ireland, is extremely nervous about claiming the title of Bishop.  He only does so in an emergency, when driven beyond endurance by an unheard-of crime; and even so, he cannot bring himself to act as one, declaring a sinner excommunicated in his own name.  Why should he behave like this?  Is he a self-proclaimed bishop?  That does not agree with his character as we see it in his writings - hesitant, convinced of his educational inferiority, all too aware of his ignorance of administration, eager to preach the Gospel to the Irish but equally desirous not to give scandal or do anything irregular.  Has he usurped an existing see?  His firm denial that he is usurping anything - since God has given him a share with all those who are predestined to preach the Gospel - sounds rather significant; but again, the personality of the Saint hardly seems to agree either with the self-seeking qualities, or with the fanaticism, needed to drive out and replace a reigning bishop.  There are only two reasons for such an act: either lawless ambition, or violent doctrinal opposition to the incumbent - plenty of Sees have been usurped on the excuse that the incumbent was a heretic.

But Patrick, far from looking for doctrinal divisions, deliberately avoids contentious statements.  He uses an uncontentious primitive Creed[16] (Confession 4), which denies no contemporary heresy except Arianism and Dualism, both of which had long been beyond the pale and were as much opposed by Pelagians as by Catholics.  It has been argued that its archaic nature shows that Patrick moved in provincial and conservative circles; I think it results from an eirenic decision to avoid anything that might reflect on current doctrinal controversies - i.e. Pelagianism.  That Patrick never makes a single direct statement about, let alone against, Pelagianism, is remarkable, and the notion that this might result from a provincial and/or conservative theological milieu is simply a non sequitur; neither conservatism, nor provinciality, nor indeed ignorance, have ever prevented Christians from engaging in the most contemporary theological arguments.  If anything, they make it easier; conservative, provincial or ignorant priests tend to weigh in like tanks, where more educated and urbane individuals tend, other things being equal, to be nervous about taking a hard line.

My point is that Patrick was not the man to mount a coup against an incumbent on doctrinal grounds.  I feel absolutely confident that he was Augustinian.  The whole nature of his faith, an internal revelation given by God through no merit of his own; his constant sense of being led and protected by a Power above himself; his sense of sin; his astonishing description of the presence of God working above and within him (Confession 24, 25), are in the most complete opposition to the spirit of Pelagianism, a spirit militant, disciplined, austere to excess, bent on sanctifying oneself by one's own unaided efforts, and completely unaware of the devastating experience of the infinite inferiority of creature to Creator, so that, in meeting Him, the self is experienced as such a small thing that it might as well be nothing.  To the end of his life, or at least to the end of the polemic, Pelagius failed to see the point of Augustine's insistence on Grace, Grace alone, Grace undeserved, or of his angry rebuttal that, by Grace, Pelagius meant nothing more than law and discipline.  No Christian who has experienced God in the manner that Augustine did can be a Pelagian, because the experience of the reality of God makes every thought of personal self-discipline and morality as nothing; as less than nothing.  All our morality is filthy rags.

Patrick was exactly such a Christian, and his descriptions of mystical experiences, though brief, are among the most convincing I know.  The bishop of Hippo is among the authors who influenced his style, though Patrick only shows signs of having read the Confessions; but then it was just the Confessions, with its famous prayer to Omnipotence and Perfect Goodness - "Give me what You command, and command what You will" - that first shocked Pelagius and awoke him to the contradiction between his view of the Faith and Augustine's.  You cannot approve of the Confessions and be a Pelagian.

Every other author Patrick can be shown to have read is orthodox: Cyprian, Pastor Hermas, the Corpus Martinianum[17].  And you can only argue that he shows no trace of Augustinianism if you believe that people's philosophy and religion are unrelated to their actions and are not reflected in their language.  There is not a word in Patrick that does not flow from an Augustinian position, not perhaps extreme, but certainly with nothing in common with Pelagian or even semi-Pelagian attitudes.  His whole attitude is Augustinian, stressing that he does nothing by himself and that the grace (that very Augustinian word!) of God is responsible for every good thing that happened to him and every good thing he has done.  Indeed, he makes of his very smallness and sinfulness a stick to beat his opponents, making his missionary success in spite of his own disabilities an argument for the presence of God at his side.  He does not even consider the possibility of being righteous, and admits to being tempted every day (Confession 44), but claims never to have lost the love of God.  This is not a direct statement of absolute dependence on God's Grace, but that statement is everywhere else, including his striking accounts of direct experiences of the will and presence of God.  He is, unlike Gildas, not practised in irony and sarcasm, but if it was possible to feel it anywhere in his writings, it would be in his allusions to not having led a perfect life "like other believers"; which seems like a veiled comment on the members of that British ecclesiastical forum which condemned the old sin he had admitted to his amicissimus.  Let them think themselves righteous if they like: Patrick knows he is a sinner - but for whom did Jesus come?

Patrick's reason to avoid doctrinal debate is clear enough.  Leading a missionary church in difficult circumstances, in an island where Pelagians were certainly present, he cannot allow himself the luxury of splits and clashes.  It is also the case that this policy of keeping one's head low, not challenging fellow-Christians, not looking for trouble, is very much in the nature of Patrick the man as we are beginning to know him - a mixture of warm-hearted concern for his converts and for all sorts of people (even Coroticus!), nervous and sometimes excessive sense of his poor education and personal shortcomings, and single-minded concentration on his work, too important to endanger it by a comparative side-issue like the aristocratic fad of Pelagianism.  Again and again, we have to say: if ever a man's character shone through his writings, Patrick's character shines through his writings; if ever a man was unlikely to want to usurp a title either out of ambition or of fanaticism, Patrick was that man.

There is a scenario that can account for the facts as we have them: Patrick might have taken over, or been propelled to, a vacant Irish see.  In that case, his non usurpo might mean: I have taken no man's place (since the see was empty); and a couple of points in the Confession tend to support this.

The first is that, though Patrick does in fact never use the word episcopus of himself in that work, he does speak of his "laborious episcopate", laboriosum episcopatum meum.  There is, I think, a difference between calling oneself a bishop and claiming to be performing a laborious episcopate; that is, one may do the work of a bishop without actually being a bishop oneself.  And I would suggest a parallel between this apparent emphasis on the office rather than the office-holder and Prosper's mention of the Bishop of the Irish.  Praising Pope Celestine's establishment of this new See, Prosper does not mention any name.  Celestine's first bishop, as we know, was Palladius, whom Prosper showed himself, elsewhere, very willing to play up; but here he has nothing to say of him.  The emphasis on the institution, Scotis episcopo, rather than on any individual, tends to underline - in the course of a review of Celestine's great deeds - that any individual who is or has been on the Irish episcopal throne owes it to that particular Pope.  Prosper also seems quite confident that the conversion of the Irish to Christianity is an achievement solid enough to last - fecit etiam barbaram [insulam] christianam - which suggests that the diocese had already shown some durability.  It does not sound as if it was still in the position of depending on the enterprise of one man, Palladius.

The second point is longer and more complex, and depends on the reading of Patrick's own very elliptical account of the great crisis of his career (Confession 26-34).  This is a fairly tightly worked passage, obviously written to people who had a good idea of the facts and concerned mainly with self-justification.  Patrick was "tempted" - in the Lord's Prayer meaning of "led into the time of trial" - by people who were senior to him, and who struck him such a blow that, but for God's help, he might not have risen again (26).  How did God help him?  When at his lowest ebb, he had one of his decisive visions, of a document written "against my face without honour" and a Voice that said "Ill have We seen the face of the Selected One with a bared name".  Grammatically, the phrase is none too clear; but when Patrick describes the words of Divine praise for his piety, he uses Bene ieiunas, "well do you fast"; and by that he means, it is good that you fast.  His fast is to be rewarded by his semi-miraculous escape.  Therefore, what the Lord meant was: "it is ill that We have seen...". What comforted Patrick enormously was to hear "Ill have We seen" rather than "Ill have you seen"; that is, he felt that God was literally on his side.  If He had said "It is ill that you have seen", it would be a mere statement of the obvious: it was a bad thing for you to go through this experience; but Patrick's God reassured Patrick that Patrick's own bad treatment was a bad thing for God as well.  The Selected Man, Designatus (or even God's Chosen, Dei signatus) had his name "denuded, bared", which suggests that he was stripped of some dignity, and probably deprived of the other meaning of Latin nomen - good name, renown.  And what God did for him was to give him the strength to go on.  As Patrick tells it, this desolate time ended in triumph; some time after the terrible blow, "his faith was proved before God and men", in a forum and in a way that cleared him incontrovertibly and very visibly.

Patrick's lowest moment came at the hand of the very friend who had gone to Britain to argue for him, telling him Ecce, dandus es tu ad gradum episcopatus.  This strongly suggests that the point at issue was, exactly, the gradum episcopatus, Patrick's promotion to Bishop.  But in the course of his discussion with obviously hostile seniores, this friend, though malice or - more likely - naivety, blabbed the story of the serious sin Patrick committed in his teenage years; the opposing party pounced on it, and "stripped naked the name of Designatus" - and here we realize that designatus might also mean "appointed, designated to a post".  Patrick had already been designated to the episcopate, when he was not only denied the rank, but almost ruined by the spread of an account of his youthful folly, probably inaccurate, certainly exaggerated; and what the vision of God did for him was to give him the strength to fight on, not so much for his "laborious episcopate" as for his good name and reputation.  We must conclude that the seniores attacked Patrick's laboriosum episcopatum in the course of a debate on whether he should be made a bishop: Patrick was working hard at episcopatum when his promotion to bishop was still, at best, up in the air.

This confirms that, at that point, episcopatum meant not "the title of bishop" but "the work of a bishop".  Patrick was picked, designatus, for the task, because he had already been doing it in practice.  For what other reason should this provincial priest of poor education, middling birth, and obscure past, be suggested for a bishop's staff, even by a close friend?  It was probably his flock that selected him: election to the post of Bishop was, at the time, the standard way (one hears frequently of riots between supporters of rival candidates), subject, of course, to approval from higher authorities.  In Patrick's case, the approval, one suspects, had to come from Britain: and that was what was at issue. 

The confrontation took place in Britain, and it was from Britain that the slanders against Patrick proceeded.

Patrick's writing talents give us a clue as to the nature of his "great sin".  Patrick's climaxes always grow from the material he has been treating: nothing, in his writing, can be assumed to be alien to the flow of his argument, we have seen that.  He keeps to the point.  Therefore the Confession's haunting climax, with his unforgettable attack on the Pagan worship of the Sun and its calm (and soaringly beautiful) assertion of the superiority of the Christian God, must be related to its central issues.  Patrick completes his spiritual self-defence with a declaration that the Sun itself is a perishable creature, made by a Power greater than itself, and doomed to die, while its Maker endures for ever and grants His worshippers His own eternal life.  This must have a direct relevance to the issues treated in the Confession[18].

So what does the Confession say?  That Patrick, along with some unspecified people around him, had "turned away from God" in his teen-age years, and refused to pay attention to the teaching of God's priests (even though Patrick's own father was a deacon, and his grandfather a priest); that he had subsequently been kidnapped by Irish slavers and taken to Ireland; and that it was in his time in Ireland that he first began to know God - in other words, his sin was still unrepented when he was kidnapped.  It is at this point that he asserts that non est alius deus nec umquam fuit nec ante nec erit post haec, praeter Deum huius filium Iesum Christum... et... Spiritum Sanctum, there is not, neither has there ever been, neither will there be hereafter any god other than God the Father, and His Son Jesus Christ, and the Holy Spirit: he has inserted his declaration of faith at the moment where he began to have that faith, and completely - indeed, startlingly - dropped the narrative line in favour of a vehement series of self-defences.

First, he admits he is poorly educated.  Why?  Because he was abducted as a boy, before he had the sense to know what to pursue and what to avoid.  This is a twofold admission: it is as he was in that juvenile, foolish state of rebellion against "our priests", that he also neglected his classes, "not knowing what to pursue and what to avoid".  The same state of teen-age rebellion that led him into the "great sin" - a sin which involved disbelief in, and ignorance of, the Trinity - also led him to neglect his classes and meant that his Latin remained poor and ungrammatical.  Admitting his poor Latinity is part of admitting his great sin; and the abduction to Ireland is in effect his punishment.  In the course of six years of servile employment, during which he grows from a boy to an adult, he returns to the God of the Romans.  He prays continuously, and is rewarded with a clear hint that he should escape; he does so, successfully, and his conversion to Christianity is sealed when, in the course of his escape, he refuses to take any of the honey that the sailors had sacrificed to the pagan gods.

It is this "great sin" which, after decades of priestly and missionary work, comes back to haunt him when his enemies in the British episcopate make use of it to defame him publicly; a sin which involves apostasy against the Christian God, and incidentally slackness or worse in the matter of Latin studies.  The issues it raises dominate the Confession from one end to the other, since Patrick clearly and consciously ascribes his other failings to it; if he is neither properly educated nor a decently prepared administrator, it is because he has not been able to study; and he has not been able to study, because he was atoning his Great Sin by being a slave in Ireland.  His answer to the main charge - that, whatever his failings, he believes in and preaches the Trinity - is meant to be comprehensive: as he has atoned for the core of the sin in returning to God, its by-products in terms of poor education and preparation are compensated.  Indeed, he claims to have been given by God a sapientia, a learning or knowledge, which he never expected nor thought of, and which should silence the beneficed rhetors who criticise his grammar.

The attack on the pagan worship of the Sun is the climax of this whole sequence of argument, which begins with Patrick's great sin and works its way through its consequences in his later life, from enslavement to subsequent ignorance to the contempt of the wise and learned.  The great sin is therefore, clearly, pagan worship of the Sun, and its atonement is Patrick's passionate avowal of faith in the Trinity, and his going to Ireland to convince others of Its superiority to the natural, created object they too worship.

We remember that Patrick was the son and grandson of clerics; that he and his companions - whoever they were - took on themselves to worship a pagan deity, cannot have been a small matter.  Patrick's first chapter seems to imply that all the thousands who were taken in that particular raid were involved in the act of apostasy in question; one thinks, therefore, of something collective, along the lines of re-erecting or re-consecrating a pagan temple[19].  I will later argue that Patrick was 30 or more by 407; this places his youth in the last couple of decades of the previous century, a period in which such a phenomenon is anything but incredible.  Chronologically, it would stand half-way between the reign of Julian the Apostate (361-63), in the course of which, almost certainly, the Littlecote Villa was turned into some sort of Orphic religious or intellectual establishment and the great temple of Nodons at Lydney, Gloucestershire[20], was built, and the grant of religious freedom to Pagans by John (425); bang in the middle of it there would be the last attempted Pagan restoration, that of Eugenius and Arbogast (394).  When Augustine wrote De ciuitate Dei, in the 410s, a pagan restoration still seemed a definite possibility.  Patrick’s fifteenth year was, I think, in or before the year 392.

Patrick's own participation in this movement sounds like an episode of teenage rebellion.  He associates it with a refusal to study his lessons; and we remember that part of Julian the Apostate's reason to reject the Christianity of his family was his unpleasant experience at the hands - and cane - of the Christian teacher Eusebius.  (This, incidentally, might clear Patrick's family of the imputation of weak or nominal Christianity made by many scholars.)  But there might be more to it than that: it does look as if the worship, specifically, of the star of day, had a strong emotional hold on Patrick.  On the night after he had refused the honey sacrificed by the sailors, Patrick suffered a violent physical experience, feeling crushed as if by an enormous stone.  In his grief, he says, and ignarum - unconscious, unaware; perhaps torn out of sleep by this horrible sensation - he called upon Helia - a name that sounds closer to that of the Greek god of the sun than to that of the Jewish prophet.  There is no doubt that at this point he was falling back, consciously or not, into his old Pagan ways; and this in spite of the fact that he had argued for Christianity with his pagan sailors all the way from Ireland. And a great sun, he says, came upon him and freed him from the terrible weight. But he attributes his deliverance, nevertheless, to Christ, the true Sun: et credo quod a Christo Domino meo subuentus sum, et Spiritus eius tunc clamabat pro me. In spite of his already acquired Christian faith - or as much Christian faith as a bottom-of-the class fifteen-year-old in rebellion against his family's faith could be expected to know - the hold of pagan, and specifically solar, images, was strong on him still.

This is the background used by the British to publicly attack both Patrick's rank and his faith. If an act of collective apostasy such as Patrick hints at did actually take place in his part of Britain in his youth, it is almost certain to have been a famous scandal, and well known to the ecclesiastical authorities; the participation of the priest's son in the adoration of Helios may well have been known to living witnesses when, decades afterwards, this same teenage tearaway resurfaced as claimant to a bishopric[21].

If I read the Letter correctly, Patrick was already under attack by the time of Coroticus' assault. Despite repeated demands, he never went to Britain to defend himself: missionary work, and especially the protection of young women and female slaves who had taken monastic vows, meant he had to stay in Ireland to watch over his flock. (A suspicious reader could think that just to get Patrick out of Ireland might ruin him quite as effectively as any trial, since the mission might collapse without him; if that was the case, the game of his seniores would turn out to be even dirtier than he describes it.) He mentions, with what seems to me sincere regret, his inability to travel even to see his parents - surely, by now, an elderly and much-tried couple. But his "faith" was "vindicated" in a very public forum. What forum? The forum which had decided against him and taken action to blacken his character was of high enough status to be able to decide about episcopal nominations; that is, it was certainly, a synod of bishops. To whom, then, could Patrick appeal, above the bishops of his province? The answer is obvious: to the patriarch of the West. There is evidence in the Confession that Patrick's enemies had not stopped demanding his presence in Britain up to the time of his writing, since he apologizes for being unable to go there even now; but the Pope would not demand Patrick's presence, rather judging his slandered faith from a "sistatic epistle", a written statement of faith; and against his judgement there would be no appeal. Since the council of Sardica (343), the Pope had been the last court of appeal for accused bishops[22].

I am not guessing here. There is a well-witnessed tradition in the Irish annals[23]that Pope Leo I the Great carried out the probatio of St.Patrick in the Catholic faith, and found for him. Two annals, the Annals of Innisfallen and the Annals of Ulster, date this probatio at Leo's second year in office, 441, which suggests that he found this sensitive matter in his in-tray almost as soon as he was crowned. If this hot potato had been dumped in the Pope's lap at the beginning of his term, this would explain what seems like a reference to the Christianization of Ireland in his sermon for Sts.Peter and Paul's day (29 June) 441: the row between Patrick and his British opponents would have drawn his eyes to that distant barbarian land. And the fact that he mentions it as a triumph of Christian Rome would seem to suggest that he was well disposed to its leaders[24], which supports our scheme, so far as it goes. But it is not at all clear that Leo was speaking about Ireland; the conclusion is reached mainly by a most problem-laden process of exclusion - he could not have been speaking of other non-Roman Christian areas, since they were either under Eastern administration[25], or heretical (Arian, etc.)[26].

Probare, probatio, do mean "testing", but with an inevitably positive overtone.  Any user of Latin would be aware of their derivation from probus, upright, righteous - one of the oldest, strongest and most widely used words of approval in the language. In spite of Bishop Hanson's vehement opposite view, there is no reason whatever to think that an early annalist invented Leo the Great's probatio to bring St.Patrick and the celebrated Pope into contact; if he had, he would have brought the two saints face to face, as Celtic hagiographers invariably do - to the extent of making Patrick and Brigid meet, even though Brigid was supposed to have been three (precocious young lady!) when Patrick died[27]. And Patrick's very brief statement is, at the very least, not incompatible with being justified by the Pope, which in fact suits the universality of that coram Deo et hominibus rather better than any approval by an lesser ecclesiastical forum.

What is more, the date is simply too good. If I am correct, by June 29, 441, the Pope had heard nothing to make him uneasy about the fate of the Christian Britanniae; he was concerned with a severe row between their established church and the missionary claimant to the Irish diocese, whose right to exist was unchallenged since it had been established by his predecessor-but-one. Roman Britain still existed, and the British Bishops could still try hard to browbeat and hammer the little man in the barbarian island by the favourite Romano-British means of legal procedure (trickery?); within a year, the Saxon revolt had wiped everything out. This would explain the whole unfinished feel of the story - Patrick's faith vindicated, but his episcopal title not established - people still trying to summon him to Britain for further hearings - "for as in the days that were before the flood, they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day that Noe entered into the ark; and knew not until the flood came and took them all away..." It would explain why we seem to be seeing the whole thing as if half-way through, as an interrupted process: because it was in fact interrupted.

Patrick refers to his probatio in two lines, and says nothing of who carried it out and where; from which Bishop Hanson vehemently argues that it cannot have been the Pope who probauit him, since otherwise Patrick was bound to have played up the fact. But there is one circumstance in which Patrick would not have needed to do so; and that is if the probatio had just happened and everyone knew about it. When a period of tremendous trial has just ended in victory, there is a natural impulse not so much to celebrate the victory as to go back over the whole struggle, still feeling the wounds, still justifying one's actions, still talking and feeling as if the struggle was a present reality - but looking on it, already, as a finished whole. And this is in fact exactly the impression one gets from the triumphant but brief note of the Confession: in spite of his victory, Patrick still feels the battle as if he was fighting it, and the victory is too recent to feel real. The Confession seems to me sodden with the relief, still tinged with pain and self-doubt, of a man whose most devout beliefs have been slandered for years; a sensitive and scrupulous, perhaps over-scrupulous man, bound to feel weakened by others' denunciations of his sin, yet desperately clinging to his knowledge of his own good intentions; eventually subjected to probatio by a distant and awesome authority - and finally, thunderingly, beyond all hope, probatus. But he still does not have the episcopate[28]. Once the Saxons had hammered Christian Britain, all the terms of the equation would shift; we don't know what happened, but it is likely that the British episcopal structure would suffer, and it is even possible (and it is nice to imagine) that some of Patrick's former enemies would take refuge with his mission.

This seems to give us a couple of dates: 431, Palladius is appointed bishop of the Irish; 441, Pope Leo approves Patrick's Catholic faith, and Patrick, who has been claiming the episcopate for years, writes his Confession. But it is only fair to state that most current Patrician scholars would reject this dating scheme out of hand. The pillars of most Patrician scholars are the supposed death-date of 493AD (supported by the genealogical work of the great scholar James Carney) and the rejection of the historical - to most historians, pseudo-historical - account of Patrick's youth and the beginnings of his mission found in some of the Lives, including the earliest, Muirchu's. To support my dating scheme, therefore, I must defend the latter and attack the former; and that is just what I intend to do in the next chapter.


[1]Yes, furious. One witty remark reported by Dumville sums up the general temper: in debating Patrick's death-date, "scholars have left no stone unthrown". But then, nothing that relates to Ireland is ever unaffected by intense emotion.

[2]JEROME, Letter 50 (Ad Domnionem),5. The heretic in question is perhaps Pelagius; the letter is dated about 394-95, and some scholars hold it to indicate that the brilliant young Briton, already a monk, had begun to cut a swathe through Rome’s aristocratic Christian salons. Given Jerome's strictures on the "most inarticulate" style of this opponent, surely exaggerated though they were, it is perhaps significant that the De uita Christiana, which many scholars believe to be by Pelagius himself, apologises for the author's poor stile, telling the addressee that she will have to make do with him until the better writer (probably Rufinus of Syria) becomes available; this is merely graceful manners, but it might reflect an awareness that there were better writers in the movement than the author himself; and if the author is Pelagius, then how much more infans can he have been in the 390s? In which case, Jerome was early on the case, perceiving the fundamental incompatibility of Pelagius' teaching with Christian religion a good fifteen years before Augustine!

[3]Or: All the way to Hell, it will not please! - usque ad inferos non placebit!

[4]The insistence on the baptism of his neophytes involves the concept that baptism is valid no matter who bestowed it - indeed, Catholic doctrine is that even an unbaptized person can baptize, so long as the intention is present. The Church fought the concept of re-baptism literally to the knife against heretics such as the African Donatists, whose schism turned into open civil war largely on this issue. Patrick may be saying that, whatever the validity of his orders, his British enemies cannot deny the validity of Baptism given in faith and according to Church teaching. On the other hand, Patrick does not seem to me the kind of writer to insert very subtle messages or leave important points unsaid in the expectation that his audience will supply them for themselves. His experience was that of a missionary, and missionaries spell things out.

[5]Patrick says ergo, "therefore", but this is clearly one of the cases where he gets his connectives wrong; as there is no argument from premises to conclusions, his ergo is out of place.

[6]Unde enim; unde=for which reason, following from these premises; enim=reinforcing conjunction, in this case meaning "indeed". Patrick starts a sentence as a statement and turns it half-way through into a question, a procedure more in keeping with spoken than written language, showing the oral origins of his style in the Letter.

[7]Without wanting to investigate in depth two documents not meant as systematic theology, Patrick's spirituality tended to the ascetic and self-denying, and had little respect for the body, which he only ever describes as the carrier of sin, rebelliousness and death. It is likely that his view of eternal life was very much on the spiritual, non-material side, and that he may have taken little interest in the dogma of the resurrection of the body. I think his description of Coroticus' future self as ashes refers to the state, not of his corporeal existence, but of his spirit.

[8] That is, Patrick claims to have been part of an all-Ireland mission, establishing a Church in the whole island. This is the diocese of Palladius “bishop of the Irish”, and places Patrick very close to him.

[9]DUMVILLE ET AL., Saint Patrick: AD 493-1993, p.108.

[10]It is possible that, in Patrick's time, Scotti may not have meant the whole of the peoples of Ireland. Three centuries later, Muirchu refers to Tara as caput Scottorum in Patrick's time, in which it could only be the head fortress of the power of the Ui Neill, spread across Meath, western Ulster and Connaught, but not necessarily recognized elsewhere. Patrick himself draws a very firm line between "Scots" - pagans and enemies - and "Irish" - his field of missionary activity, possible converts, and forming the majority of his actual flock. Could the "Scots", I wonder, be the tribes of the Ui Neill suzerainty? One would have to find out at what point the term Scotti came into use in Latin, how and when it was used, and whether it can ever be shown to have been used as an alternative, or as a smaller part of, the "Irish".

[11]If the sovereigns of Britain after 410 regarded themselves as Roman emperors in a line of succession beginning with Constantine III (cf. book 3, chapter 8, above), they would, like Carausius before them, regard the empire as undivided and their lords as legitimate fellow-emperors with the rulers in Ravenna and Constantinople. Coroticus, as a member of the Romano-British community, would unhesitatingly regard himself as a Roman citizen.

[12]It is not clear whether this refers to self-knowledge such as for instance of his own age, or to a more academic sort of knowledge such as chronological history or astronomy, both of which would have involved dies nouere, being able to reckon days by numbers, and would have been highly relevant in the fifth century, in which the Church was engaged in a great deal of debate about such matters as Easter and the dating of years in Christian reckoning. Interestingly, two centuries later, the pro-Roman ecclesiastic Cummian attributed to Patrick a specific Easter reckoning method which is quite different from the notorious eighty-four year cycle which the Celtic churches accepted, and which was such a bone of contention between them and Rome, and much closer to the classical Alexandrian method, a version of which, that of Dionysius Exiguus, Rome eventually adopted. The difference between Patrick's supposed Computus and the "Celtic" Easter-reckoning is, to some extent, an argument in its favour: but it is possible that Cummian simply made up the Patrician item to prove the superiority of the Alexandrian Metonic cycle over the Celtic eighty-four year one.

[13] Here there may be a suggestion of the missionary and foreign nature of his work; he is a legatus not only of God, but of a Roman institution - the Church - in Ireland, outside the Roman borders.

[14]Catechism of the Catholic Church, London, Geoffrey Chapman, 1999, 1462 (p.329)

[15]Patrick must have known about St.Ambrose. The fact that in Patrick's lifetime (as I reckon it) the Mild King named one of his sons Ambrosius, indicates that British Catholic circles admired the inflexible bishop. For that matter, Patrick was familiar with the traditions of St. Martin of Tours, since echoes of the corpus Martinianum apparently occur in his work; and Martin, too, had been very rude to an Emperor guilty of civil violence - our old friend Magnus Maximus, rebuked by Martin for his usurpation and also for executing heretics.

[16]HANSON, St.Patrick, 172f, quoting several authorities.

[17]PETER DRONKE, St.Patrick's reading, in CMCS 1 (1981), 21-38, quoted in SNYDER op.cit. 43

[18]The identical argument against worshipping the Sun was made by Persian Christians at risk of martyrdom, of whom Patrick was not likely to be aware. It follows that it may have been to some extent formulaic, but if there was a formula, it was unlike the standard stocks-and-stones one used so unintelligently by Gregory of Tours in his spurious account of the conversion of Clovis (GREGORY OF TOURS, History of the Franks 2.9-31). The argument against the Sun, deployed almost at the same time at the two opposite missionary ends of the Christian world, strikes much deeper at the distinction between the Christian religion and any other, hinging on the separation between Creator and creature.  NICHOLAS SIMS-WILLIAMS, The Christian Sogdian manuscript C2, East Berlin 1985, p.142.

[19]Deum enim uerum ignorabam, et Hiberione in captiuitate adductus sum cum tot milia hominum, secundum merita nostra, quia a Deo recessimus et praecepta eius non custodiuimus et sacerdotibus nostris non oboedientes fuimus, qui nostra salutem admonebant; et dominus induxit super nos iram admonitionis suae, et dispersit nos in gentibus multis etiam usque ad ultimum terrae... "...For I ignored God; and I was taken in captivity to Ireland with so many thousand people, as we deserved, for we moved away from God, and we did not keep His commandments, and we did not obey our priesthood, which taught our salvation. And the Lord took the wrath of His warning [or: teaching] over us, and scattered us among many tribes, indeed all the way to the last of the world..." Notice how the burden of guilt shifts from "I" to "we": it seems that the whole population of the district that was raided laboured under the same burden of sin as Patrick himself. On the other hand, there is a certain escape into generalities; while Patrick claims that his own guilt is atoned by having accepted and taught the Trinity, the guilt of the raided district is, more generally, indifference to God and His priesthood, which need not imply actual apostasy or heresy. I would suggest that those who had not actually supported the Pagan revival in question, had proved indifferent to it, allowing its promoters - including the teenage deacon's son - to go right ahead as they pleased, and it is for this, as much as for the pagan revival itself, that everyone was punished. Religious indifference is also E's charge against the British, a generation or so after Patrick's abduction according to my chronology.

[20]It is perhaps useful for assessing how much of the pagan past was remembered in Gildas' time, that the name of Lydney clearly includes that of the pagan god Nodons, i.e. Welsh Nudd or Lludd: "island or river-meadow [eg] of the sailor, or of a man called Lida" - A.D.MILLS, Oxford dictionary of English place-names, Oxford, 1998, p.229.  And who, pray tell, might this Lida be? It would seem, therefore, that the memory of the original pagan lord of the site lasted through the sound-changes that turned British Celtic into Early Welsh, and till after the English conquest - which, in this area, began in the 570s.

[21]To push this theory further, this might explain why, when Patrick finally decided to take orders, he had to go to Gaul rather than be consecrated in his own country; perhaps the local religious authorities were still prejudiced against him.

[22] H.HESS, The canons of the council of Sardica, 1958.

[23]And in the Irish annals alone. There is no trace of it in Patrick's various Lives. Evidently this information was preserved in an area, or in documents, different from those used by Muirchu and later hagiographers. There is no reliable annalistic tradition in Ireland until at least 550AD, but if any tradition recorded Patrick's probatio at the first or second year of Pope Leo, it would have been easy for any competent chronologist to date it. The date, as we will see, is likely for a host of reasons, each individually rather thin, all of them together rather stronger.

[24] Leo was engaged in a continuous effort to establish the direct dependence of metropolitan sees upon Rome; he was an imperial-minded man, whose aggressive intervention against the supposedly inoffensive monk Eutyches is regarded by non-Catholic historians as an inexcusable blunder. He would probably not welcome the assault of a British church not long out of the Pelagian crisis upon an Irish diocese established not by them but by his predecessor-but-one to contain that very heresy, and might welcome the opportunity to assert Roman authority in parts where - as he says - imperial armies had never arrived.

[25]That is, not under the control of the episcopal authority of Rome, whose bishop was the patriarch of the West only. Leo's point in his sermon was that Rome's new twin patrons, Sts. Peter and Paul, had taken the city - that particular city, not the Roman empire as a whole - to conquests beyond the furthest bonds of the previous patrons, Romulus and Remus.

[26]T.M CHARLES-EDWARDS, Palladius, Prosper and Leo the Great: mission and primatial authority, in DUMVILLE, Saint Patrick: AD 493-1993, Woodbridge 1993, quoting sources and parallels.

[27]A much stronger argument against this encounter is of course that in my view Brigid never existed; but that is not a matter for this study.

[28] In one of the earliest references to Patrick, the scribe of the late-seventh-century Book of Durrow asks for his blessings, calling him not “bishop” but “priest”. Is it possible that, in some quarters, knowledge of his dubious status had survived?

History of Britain, 407-597 is copyright 2002, Fabio P. Barbieri. Used with permission.

Comments to: Fabio P. Barbieri

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